With my mother’s permission, I want to share with you all the curveball life just threw my family. A few weeks ago, my healthy 71-going-on-55 year old mother started feeling palpitations in her chest, a fast heart rate, and some shortness of breath. She thought something might be wrong with her so far always healthy heart, so she went to Urgent Care, where they found a healthy heart but severe anemia of the macrocytic (big blood cells) variety. We thought she might have a B12 or folate deficiency and hoped the treatment would be as simple as a vitamin supplement. But the next day, the doctor called me. Her blood smear was just reviewed by the pathologist, and it didn’t look good. It looked like leukemia, but the only way to know for sure would be to endure the painful gold standard test—a bone marrow biopsy.
When I was researching my book Mind Over Medicine, I stumbled across the Spontaneous Remission Project put together by the Institute of Noetic Sciences, which collected over 3500 case studies published in the medical literature about people who experienced spontaneous remissions from seemingly “incurable diseases.” Most of the case studies revolved around people with Stage 4 cancers who either declined conventional treatment or were given treatment deemed by doctors to be inadequate for cure. But the Spontaneous Remission Project also includes case studies of people who had remissions from heart failure, autoimmune diseases, high a gunshot wound to the head, and HIV.
The question reverberating in my mind and keeping me awake at night after reading these case studies was “How did they do this? Were these people just lucky, or did they do something proactive?” None of the case studies even commented on what had happened. But since I wrote Mind Over Medicine, people have been telling me their stories, and none of the people who experienced spontaneous remissions strike me as lucky. Every single one of them was an active participant in their cure.
I’m not the only one who was wildly curious about whether people experiencing cures from “incurable” illnesses were doing something to improve their chances of cure. Kelly A. Turner, PhD studies people who have experienced what she calls “radical remissions.” She prefers the term “radical remission” because she says there’s nothing “spontaneous” about these remarkable cures.
Kelly and I became friends when I was researching Mind Over Medicine, and I shared some of Kelly’s work in my book. But her research has been ongoing, and Kelly’s new book Radical Remission: The Nine Key Factors That Can Make A Real Difference launches today. What Kelly discovered is that the people who experienced radical remissions were not passively sitting by, waiting for a miracle. They were making nine significant changes in their lives, only two of which might be recommended by a forward-thinking physician.
Stories of Radical Remission
There is much to appreciate and admire about Radical Remission, but some of its most remarkable elements are the stories of people who have been cured from Stage 4 cancers.
My mother had a sore neck. Probably from Pilates class, she thought. So she went to her doctor, who ordered an X-ray. Upon reviewing the X-ray, her doctor ordered an MRI for a week later.
My mother asked her doctor why he was ordering more tests. Did he see evidence of osteoporosis? Arthritis? A slipped disc?
Without even making eye contact with her, Mom’s doctor said, “Could be metastatic cancer.” Then promptly left the room.
Unsurprisingly, my phone rang next. It was my mother, who has read my book Mind Over Medicine, asking me to help calm her nervous system.
The Amygdala As Sentry
Here’s what was happening in my mother’s brain when her doctor said the words “metastatic cancer” without offering any comfort.
Mom was married to my father, a radiologist whose job it was to read X-rays, identify any potential abnormalities, and order follow up testing if anything appeared even remotely suspicious. So her thinking, rational forebrain reasoned, “It’s probably nothing and the doctor is just covering his butt by ordering a follow up scan.”
But her amygdala, the scaredy-cat part of her primordial limbic brain, only hears, “METASTATIC CANCER! A CERTAIN DEATH SENTENCE!”
Now being an amygdala is sort of like being one of those meerkat sentries that stands on the top of the mound, surveying the environment for danger in order to protect the whole clan of meerkats. The amygdala’s primary job is to be on the lookout for danger and sound the alarm when it discovers a threat. When it does, it triggers a whole cascade of hormonal activity, and the hormones that get secreted bathe every cell in the body.
We all know stress is bad for us, yet many of us wear it like a badge of honor. See if this sounds familiar:Dude: “OMG, I’m so stressed out! I’m working 14 hour days and haven’t used my vacation days for two years now, but hey - sometimes you just gotta keep your eye on the prize, right? Hey, you still seeing that guy?”Dudette: “Nah. We tried to make it work, but it was such a headache. Relationships are just too stressful. Plus, who has time for a relationship when you’re on a deadline and you’ve got the boss lady to impress?”
You know the drill.
Many of us are stress addicts. We claim to want inner peace, but if life gets too peaceful, we go seeking our next hit of our drugs of choice - cortisol and epinephrine. It’s almost as if being stressed makes us feel important, valuable, and useful. What we forget is that we’re already worthy souls deserving of love and a sense of worth, simply because we are all little sparks of divinity, shining our lights on the planet.
Why Should We Avoid Stress?
Our bodies know how to heal themselves. In my new book Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself, I share boatloads of data about the placebo effect, which provides concrete proof that the body is equipped with natural self-repair mechanisms that are under the control of our brilliant minds.
Our bodies know how to fix broken proteins, kill cancer cells, retard aging, and fight infection. They even know how to heal ulcers, make skin lesions disappear and knit together broken bones!
But here’s the kicker - those natural self-repair mechanisms don’t work if you’re stressed! No wonder Dude and Dudette wind up sick or injured!
In Mind Over Medicine, in my latest TEDx talk and in many blog posts like this one, I talk about how the body is equipped with natural self-repair mechanisms that can be flipped on or off with thoughts, beliefs, and feelings that originate in the mind. This is great news, because it means, in essence, that you can heal yourself.
Mind Over Medicine has a whole section which teaches you the 6 Steps To Healing Yourself (you can read it for yourself by buying the book here.) But one of the many simple ways you can flip on your body’s self-repair mechanisms is via meditation.
What Does It Mean To Meditate?
Dictionary.com defines meditation as “continued or extended thought; reflection; contemplation,” but I prefer Harvard professor Dr. Herbert Benson’s definition. He defines it as “Repetition of a word, sound, phrase, prayer, or muscular activity while passively disregarding everyday thoughts that inevitably come to mind and returning to your repetition.”
With this definition of meditation, anything can be a meditation - not just sitting with your eyes closed in the lotus position, but walking, making art, cooking, shopping, dancing, driving… whatever.
How The Body Heals Itself
In my medical training, we were not taught that the body knows how to heal itself. It is equipped with natural self-repair mechanisms that repair broken proteins, kill cancer cells, fight infections, prevent aging, and maintain the homeostasis of the body. When the body gets sick, whether from the common cold or something more serious, like heart disease or cancer, it’s almost always because the body’s self-repair mechanisms have broken down, usually because of stress.
When the nervous system is stressed, as it is during the “fight-or-flight” stress response that is so commonly triggered in modern day life, these self-repair mechanisms are disabled and the body is at risk for disease. Only when the counterbalancing relaxation response is activated, when the sympathetic nervous system is turned off and the parasympathetic nervous system is turned on, can the body heal itself.