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.
In response to last week’s blog post Was Angelina Jolie “Medically Hexed?” many of you wrote to me asking my medical opinion on screening mammography. So… gulp… here we go. You asked. Mind you, this is simply my understanding of the very complex data - and this blog post is all about my personal opinion and how I came to it - but I totally respect your right to have a very different one! If you or someone you love has had your life saved as the result of mammography, I’m so glad this technology has helped you. My father was a radiologist specializing in mammography, and he’d probably roll over in his grave if he read what I’m about to write. But as I said, this is just my humble opinion. Because you asked.
Like genetic testing for things like the BRCA gene, screening for breast cancer is not a black and white issue, so I can't give you a simple "Thumbs up" or "Thumbs down" on whether I think all women should or shouldn’t be getting mammograms. Like many medical decisions, it's very personal, and each woman has to choose for herself what is right, based on her family history, her threshold for risk-taking, her tendency to fear the unknown, and her analysis of the data that shows that while early screening may save lives, it also leads to a great deal of what researchers call “overdiagnosis” and “overtreatment.”
Keep in mind that what I’m about to talk about is screening mammography, not diagnostic mammography. Screening mammograms are performed when there’s no breast lump or other worrisome breast abnormality, while diagnostic mammograms are performed when there is a known breast abnormality, such as a lump or an abnormal screening mammogram.
I’m also not talking about women with strong family histories or known BRCA gene status. For those women, I strongly recommend regular mammography and follow up with biopsies when necessary.
As you’ll be able to tell if you read old blog posts of mine, I was always pro-mammogram until I started researching the book I'm currently writing The Fear Cure: Cultivating Courage As Medicine For The Body, Mind & Soul (the sequel to Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself.) In my research, I've uncovered shocking data about breast cancer screening that I’ll share with you in this post.
Overdiagnosis Of Cancer
A study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute estimates that 25% of breast cancers detected on mammogram, 50% of lung cancers diagnosed by chest X-ray and sputum analysis, and 60% of prostate cancers diagnosed by prostate specific antigen (PSA) are “overdiagnosed.” The study also evaluated overdiagnosis of neuroblastoma, thyroid cancer, melanoma, and kidney cancer.
The authors of the study define “overdiagnosis” as “the diagnosis of a ‘cancer’ that would otherwise not go on to cause symptoms or death.” Overdiagnosis is not the same as misdiagnosis, which implies that the pathologist made a mistake looking at the specimen under a microscope. Overdiagnosis of cancer suggests that the cancer exists, but that it is clinically irrelevant - that left untreated, it would either regress spontaneously (we know this happens) or the patient would die of something else before the cancer caused symptoms or death. The authors describe how these overdiagnoses can harm patients and reduce quality of life. Such overdiagnoses lead to medically unnecessary procedures, such as radical surgery and treatments known to predispose to future cancers, such as chemotherapy and radiation, which can cause leukemia and other malignancies.
The authors of the study conclude, “Whereas early detection may well help some, it undoubtedly hurts others. In general, there is no right answer for the resulting trade-off—between the potential to avert a cancer death and the risk of overdiagnosis. Instead, the particular situation and personal choice have to be considered.”