Any change to our state of health is challenging but a cancer diagnosis is different. Those three dreadful words “you have cancer” have an amplified effect that breeds suffering and fills our hearts with terror.
Before you heard those three words you were first a mother, father, son, daughter, friend or relative. You had hopes and dreams, you had goals. The instant those words reached your ears, you became a cancer patient.
According to Dr. Alastair Cunningham of the Ontario Cancer Institute, “Suffering is a mental reaction to events perceived as unwanted. Much of the suffering cancer causes comes from reflecting on the diagnosis and what it implies, rather than directly from the disease itself. Cancer is thus an existential crisis, not simply a physical problem.”
From this perspective, healing is therefore the relief of suffering and this is what this article focuses on.
Why Modern Medicine May Not be Enough?
We are fortunate to live in this day and age where the miracles of modern medicine are abundant, and we should rejoice in the fact that more patients survive cancer today than in any other time in history. Having said that, medicine still operates on the basis of the old paradigm where cancer is viewed as a local event within the body, a failure of a particular organ or group of organs.
The old cancer paradigm still focuses only on the physical, the tumor, and employ the traditional treatment regimen of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. These treatments, while saving lives, tax patients mentally, emotionally and physically and many survivors struggle to maintain their quality of life, sometimes even years later due to late treatment side-effects.
Another unintended outcome of modern medicine is the separation of the patient from the illness. Because modern medicine evolved through scientific research on the anatomical and physiological composition of the body, there was no room for anything else.
We now know however that illness is a multi-dimensional event, and this false sense of separation is in many cases the root of suffering for many patients. Since the body and mind are an integrated system where if you affect one part, you affect the whole, we must acknowledge that for healing to take place, the person and the illness cannot and should not be separated.
The Whole Person Approach
The whole person approach to healing and recovery is not a new idea. It has been around since Hippocrates (460 BC – 357 BC), the father of modern medicine, said “It is more important to know what sort of person has a disease than to know what sort of disease a person has.”
As a Cancer Recovery Specialist my view is that for true and lasting healing we must transcend the mechanistic-reductionist Newtonian view of disease and recognize that illness is a whole person event. We should further recognize that for true and lasting recovery, illness must be treated not only on the level of biology, but also on the level of the mind.
When it comes to cancer, we are far from helpless and there are various ways we can increase our odds for recovery. In a nutshell, while our medical team can do everything in its power to heal our body, we must do our part and engage our own resources so we can benefit from the many blessings modern medicine has to offer.
Healing from the “Outside” vs Healing from the “Inside”
Looking at illness through the lens of modern medicine is, in my opinion, smart. It does not mean we have to accept the offered medical treatment options, but knowing all we can about our body and condition translates into being realistic and pragmatic.
Modern medicine is one avenue of healing from the “outside”. Another avenue is alternative remedies and methods. The main difference between the two is the amount of research and documented evidence. Without getting into the politics of it all, suffice it to say that alternative methods and remedies have in comparison to medicine little rigorous research to support their efficacy.
When and if such research is done and a particular alternative method or remedy shows consistent results, that method or remedy could become a part of the conventional repertoire.
Healing from the “inside” means harnessing our inner resources to restore balance in all aspects of our lives. It means working through the mind.
Not to be confused with the brain, which is the three-pound gray mass housed inside our skull, the mind is the non-physical part of us.
The words brain and mind are often used interchangeably, but they are separate and different entities. As mentioned above, the most noticeable difference is that the essence of the brain is physical, and the essence of mind is non-physical. The brain is tangible, and the mind is intangible. The mind is a field of consciousness involving thoughts, emotions, perceptions and beliefs. The brain is an organ inside the skull. It acts as a neural “switchboard” and the processor for our thoughts, emotions, perceptions and beliefs.
Think of your mind as the architect and your brain as a builder. It is the builder’s mission to convert the architect’s plan into bricks and mortar.
Working Through the Mind is Not Alternative Medicine
There is a tendency to lump the pathway of “working through the mind” with alternative medicine but it’s really not the case. Working through the mind is a rational pathway, an evidence-based approach with a significant body of research behind it, more closely associated with traditional medicine.
Having said that, despite a growing body of evidence from fields of research such as Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI), many medical providers still find the concept of influencing the course of illness by working through the mind very controversial.
And yet, many of them will agree that giving patients tools to reduce stress, which research shows impairs immune function, and helping them cultivate a sense of mastery over their experience is beneficial. They might even go so far as to agree that going into treatment, or into any procedure, in the right state of mind can yield a better outcome.
My argument is simple: while working through the mind cannot reverse a mutation that has already happened within the cell, it can help strengthen the mechanisms that regulate cell growth.
The Science of the mind-Body
Dr. Ader of the university of Rochester NY is credited with introducing the term “Psychoneuroimmunology” (PNI) in 1975. His experiments provided the core clinical evidence used by others to explore the link between the mind, brain, nervous system and immune function. PNI research helps us understand the relationship between mental and emotional states, the human nervous system, and the functioning of the immune system.
PNI research provided a logical and rational explanation of how the mind can affect organic or physical health. The lessons from PNI research are compelling medical researchers to reexamine old assumptions. The debate has shifted dramatically from questioning whether the mind has any role in the development of illness to whether the mind can influence the physical body enough for healing to occur.
While more research is required to provide a complete answer to this question, nowadays many notable institutions around the world are investigating the promising potential of PNI. Clearly, if mind states have such a vital role in the origin and negative perpetuation of disease, then conversely mind states can be utilized or mobilized to promote recovery and health.
Cancer and Self-Blame
Before we continue with what each of us can do to increase our odds for recovery from cancer, it is vital to address the topics of illness, guilt and self-blame. Any attempt to transcend the mechanistic view of disease and suggest that we, as people, can intervene or influence the course of illness in some way immediately raises the question of personal responsibility i.e. did I make myself sick? The answer is absolutely NO, you did not.
“The mind-body approach may unintentionally create the notion that people are responsible for their illnesses because they lack the proper mental attitude; aside from being scientifically inaccurate, such blame can induce feelings of distress and guilt.” (Castleman, 1996).
Think about it from this perspective: if we could intentionally bring about illness, we should just as easily be able to intentionally restore ourselves to health. If it was only so simple.
The Role of Hope in Recovery
My belief is that hope is absolutely vital when considering the recovery process. It is important to establish that hope is not the same thing as positive thinking. I do not suggest that anyone facing cancer merely tries to think in a more positive way and all will be well.
The opposite of hope is hopelessness. It is a state of mind in which a person feels like nothing more can be done and they give up.
Hope, on the other hand, promotes activity. When you feel hopeful you are more inclined to take action. An active state of being can help increase mental and emotional resilience which helps patients cope with the many challenges embedded in the cancer journey.
Some medical professionals would argue that promoting non-medical therapies for cancer only gives people false hope. My answer to them is that false hope only exists when one receives a false guarantee or an unrealistic treatment outcome.
False hope only exists when one receives a false guarantee or
an unrealistic treatment outcome.
A practical rule I subscribe to is to avoid practitioners or practices which claim they can “cure” illness. Instead, I look for those practitioners who advocate reasonable hope. Reasonable hope is rational and logical; after all, no medical provider can guarantee that their conventional scientific approach will work either. None of us in the healing professions have all the answers.
In his book Healing Psyche, my colleague Rob van Overbruggen discusses the possibility of false hopelessness. False hopelessness occurs when someone is told their illness is untreatable and that nothing more can be done for them.
Many people put so much faith in medicine that these kinds of statements made by their doctors can become self-fulfilling prophecies. The simple truth is that no one really knows who will recover and why they heal, but the fact is some people do.
The Case for a Multi-Dimensional Approach to Recovery
The case for shifting our view of illness from only physical or single dimensional to a multi-dimensional treatment paradigm is made clear with the following diagrams borrowed from Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy.
One of the main assumptions of Frankl’s Logotherapy is that human beings are spiritual (multi-dimensional) beings. Here the implied meaning of the word “spiritual” is stripped from any religious affiliation. Spiritual is used only within the scope of a secular concept representing the multi-dimensional nature of our being: physical (body), psychological (feelings and emotions), and spiritual (mind).
We are aware mostly of our physical dimension. We know that we have a psychological dimension, but we often disregard our spiritual dimension.
According to Frankl, problems arise when we try to understand the human experience by projecting its multi-dimensional configuration onto a lower dimensional plane, such as the biological or psychological plane. When viewing a multi-dimensional person from only one-dimension, we miss valuable and vital information about the other dimension(s). In other words, we fail to see the whole or full composite of the person.
Frankl’s Dimensional Ontology
Dimensional Ontology is a component of Logotherapy that logically explains the nature of perception. Frankl’s laws of Dimensional Ontology provide an explanation of the way the human spirit relates to human science, especially the fields of psychology and medicine.
It establishes the belief that humans are spiritual beings, thus multi-dimensional beings.
Frankl’s First Law of Dimensional Ontology
“One and the same phenomenon projected out of its own dimension into different dimensions lower than its own is depicted in such a way that the individual pictures contradict one another (Figure 1).”
This is illustrated in Figure 1 which shows a cylinder suspended in a three-dimensional space.
In the words of Frankl: “Projected out of its three-dimensional space into the horizontal and vertical two-dimensional planes, it (the cylinder) yields in the first case a circle and in the second on a rectangle. These pictures contradict one another. What is more important, the cylinder is an open vessel (open from the top, hollow) in contrast to the circle and the rectangle that are closed figures.”
In other words, the human experience has many dimensions: a physical dimension (rectangle), a psychological dimension (circle), and a spiritual dimension (the open cylinder).
Each projection provides important information. The rectangle reveals its height and width, the circle reveals its circumference. However, neither one of these projections tells us that we are actually looking at a cylinder. We know it is a cylinder only because we can see the original object.
Neither projection informs us that the cylinder is, in fact, an open system, closed only at the bottom. Each projection provides limited information, and therefore we do not have a truly accurate or complete understanding of what the source object really is.
Why Frankl’s Logic is Important to Cancer
When it comes to understanding the human experience of illness, researchers have mainly studied cancer from a one-dimensional perspective. Based on Frankl’s logic, researchers miss the real perspective, facts and important elements vital to treatment.
For example, medical practitioners view cancer as a physiological event taking place within the body. They only see cancer cells residing and dividing in the body, and their goal is to get rid of them!
By contrast, psychologists look at cancer through the lens of mental science in the context of social influences, behavioral patterns and certain personality types.
Each of these two projections provides important information, but each approach is extremely limited and incomplete. Each fails to see and thus treat the whole person. Could this be the reason why we have not yet found the “cure” for cancer? How can medical researchers find the cure if they only see cancer from the perspective of a singular dimension?
Despite almost inexhaustible resources, huge budgets, and unlimited manpower, no medical research study or doctor can definitively say what causes cancer with 100% scientific certainty. How could they with such a limited view of the problem?
Medical researchers discuss internal and external contributors. They can point to genetic disposition and carcinogenic factors in our environment. All true! But knowing you have cancer does not cause you to heal any better, so it is not good enough just to know that you have cancer and that it might be genetic. How does that create healing?
Viewing cancer treatment only as a medical or biological event, or only as a psychological event, means robbing people of their true spiritual nature. It limits their experience to one or two dimensions, but we know there are more dimensions.
Logotherapy assumes that humans are spiritual beings. This is very significant and missing from each of the other two dimensions. It is the spiritual dimension that provides meaning and purpose in one’s life.
Continuing with Frankl’s logic, we see that any attempt to completely cure cancer must include the spiritual dimension. The physical expression of cancer is the actual tumor. The tumor may respond well to chemotherapy, surgery, radiation treatment or psychotherapeutic intervention, but the cancer will not be “cured” unless and until the mental and psychological patterns that have made it possible to develop in the first place are also corrected and resolved.
Origins of Illness: In Which Dimension Does Cancer Originate?
Now that we have established that human beings are multi-dimensional; the real question is obvious: In which dimension does cancer originate?
Frankl’s Second Law of Dimensional Ontology
Frankl’s second law provides evidence of the possibility that cancer can originate in the realm of the subconscious mind. It reads as follows: “Different phenomena projected out of their own dimension into one-dimension lower than their own are depicted in such a manner that the pictures are ambiguous” (Figure 2).
The three-dimensional objects — the cone, the cylinder and the ball — are all perceived as having the same shape when projected out of their three-dimensional world down on to a two-dimensional world (the floor), but in fact each object is distinctly different from each other.
It is impossible to deduce the structure of the primary and true object simply by studying the shape each object casts on the floor. Figure 2 logically illustrates the importance of perception within the context of illness and cancer.
Let the circle on the floor represent a state of illness. Assume that each one of the original three-dimensional objects represents a potential origin or source of illness. Further we assume the physical and biological dimension of cancer is represented by the cylinder, the psychological dimension by the cone, and the realm of the subconscious mind (spiritual) by the ball.
There is only one logical conclusion. For some people, the cause of cancer is in the physical or biological dimension, for others the source lies within the psychological dimension, and for others it is in the realm of the mind. How can you possibly begin to heal without treating all dimensions? You cannot! The answer is again as simple as the universal law of cause and effect, and it includes all dimensions.
The responsible thing to do is to recognize the possibility of illness originating
in the realm of the mind, not only the body.
By assuming that cancer is just a physical phenomenon or a psychological phenomenon, we fail to see the whole person. If we have only a limited view and cannot see the whole person, then we cannot treat the whole person. Therefore, we will fail to heal the whole person.
Obviously the physical, psychological, and spiritual dimensions must all be treated. Ignoring or waiting to take action on any dimension amounts to failing to take advantage of all the available options towards recovery.
The result of such failure may lead to progression of cancer or its recurrence even in the face of the best medicine has to offer. Why approach healing from such a limited perspective? You have everything to gain and nothing to lose by treating all three dimensions.
So, What Can We Do?
Now that we understand the multi-dimensional nature of illness and the negative impact of stress on our immune system, what can we do to increase our odds for recovery?
According to David Spiegel MD, a psychiatrist and researcher at Stanford University, “Stress can adversely affect components of the immune system involved in fighting diseases like cancer”. This is an important statement because it suggests that by addressing and resolving that harmful stress produces mental patterns within a patient’s mind, we can eliminate their disrupting effect on the immune system so it can better engage in the elimination of cancer cells.
How Do We Take Back Control and Reduce the Experience of Stress?
The first step is to understand why we stress out, and essentially there are two main reasons:
We perceive a situation to be dangerous, difficult, or painful.
We do not believe we have the inner resources to cope.
The first point is about perception and the second about belief. The good news is both perception and belief are faculties of the mind.
While there are many aspects of illness and health we have little or no control over, we do have complete control over what we allow into our minds, which is the kind of information we allow to impact our experience.
Perceptions + Beliefs = Suffering/Stress
I’ve mentioned earlier that healing is the relief of suffering. But what does that mean? Where to begin?
“There are two main ways to relieve suffering: remove the event or change your mental reaction to the event.” Dr. Alastair Cunningham, Ontario Cancer Institute
Relieving Suffering at the Level of mind – Points of Engagement
Fear and negativity
Helplessness and hopelessness
Shame, guilt, self-blame
All of the above contribute to our experience of stress. They are like a frame or a window through which we look at the world. They are the building blocks of our belief, and they can be addressed and resolved.
Strategy #1: Mental Inventory
To begin to resolve our mental and psychological patterns, we need to become aware of them. One way to do this is to write down our sponsoring thoughts, which are basically our dominant thoughts. For example, what are your sponsoring thoughts about your value and worth i.e. do you believe with all your heart you are worthy of healing and recovery?
Our instinct will be to say yes, of course I feel worthy, however, if you pay attention to your internal dialog, those thoughts you think in the privacy of your own mind might surprise you.
Is your internal dialog positive, inspiring and uplifting? Or is it harsh, demeaning and judgmental?
The quality of our internal dialog perfectly reflects the nature of our core beliefs. Take five minutes or so to think about the following topics and write your sponsoring thoughts about them:
What is your attitude toward treatment?
What is your attitude toward your medical team?
What is your attitude toward yourself?
What is your outlook on treatment outcome?
Do you feel worthy of the support you are getting?
Do you feel worthy of healing and recovery?
Once you have written down your sponsoring thoughts you will have clarity of what’s in your way of getting the most out of treatment.
The most effective method I found to override old beliefs and assumptions about who we are and about our inner resources to cope is hypnotherapy. Unlike conventional psychotherapy which primarily engages the conscious mind, hypnotherapy engages the subconscious mind. The subconscious mind is the storehouse of our memories and perception. Working at the level of the subconscious mind means offering remedy at the level of the problem itself.
Addressing and reducing stress can help revive the innate immune response, which means strengthening the body’s ability to defend against, and recover from, cancer.
Strategy #2: Physical Inventory
Another way to increase your odds for recovery is by utilizing self-help tools and techniques to help with:
Treatment side effects
Enhancing quality of life (QOL)
The bottom line is that by making treatment more manageable, patients can more readily complete the course of treatment. This in turn improves their odds for survival.
Strategy #3: Seek Professional Help
If working on your own does not excite you, seek professional help. Since not every practice or practitioner may be a good fit for you, ask many questions and be curious.
My work is grounded in the scientific study of PNI. It’s designed to engage the mind in a way that will reveal the limiting mental and psychological patterns that produce stress, inhibit recovery and diminish the efficacy of medicine.
The end result we aim for by engaging the mind is optimal immune function, greater physical and emotional resilience, increased capacity to fight against and recover from cancer, and enhanced quality of life. Following this path often translates into an improved attitude toward treatment and outlook for a more favorable outcome.
The Tipping Point of Self-Help
Since PNI validated the “working through the mind” approach as a viable pathway to healing and recovery, all that is left is to try and define how much influence the mind really has over illness. Playing devil’s advocate here, let’s assume the worst-case scenario and decide that this pathway amounts to merely 1% of the whole recovery equation. Again, just playing devil’s advocate here.
Then the question still remains, what if it’s the crucial 1% that tips the whole equation in a favorable way?
Until science finds the answer to this question, let’s consider what we do know. We know that active participation in the recovery process is both empowering and meaningful. The internal sense of being in control helps maintain autonomy and avoid falling into the common negative mind-traps of depression, helplessness and hopelessness. We know that since stress diminishes the functioning of the immune system we can strengthen the immune response by reducing our exposure to stress.
My hope in writing this article is that you will recognize the potential for recovery from cancer goes beyond simply submitting the body to treatment, and that our subconscious mind is our greatest ally in the recovery process. Harnessing its power can at best have desired transformative outcome. At worst, it can help patients embrace their journey, lessen treatment side-effects, and increase resilience and their odds for recovery.