My mother had a sore neck, probably from Pilates class, she figured. So Mom went to her doctor, who ordered an X-ray. Upon reviewing the X-ray, her doctor ordered a CT scan 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 he promptly left the room.

Let me explain what was happening in my mother’s nervous system in that moment when my mother’s doctor said the words “metastatic cancer” without offering any comfort. Mom was married to my father, a radiologist who read X-rays for a living, so Mom’s thinking rational forebrain knew that if the radiologist saw anything even mildly suspicious, he might order follow up testing and it wasn’t necessarily the end of the world. But Mom’s rational forebrain was not in charge in the moment when her doctor said the words “metastatic cancer.” Instead, the amygdala in Mom’s primal brain flashed back to my father, who had died of metastatic cancer only a few years earlier. All her amygdala heard was, “METASTATIC CANCER! A CERTAIN DEATH SENTENCE!”

When Mom’s amygdala heard the word “cancer,” her amygdala automatically signaled “danger,” and the red alert fired off, flipping on Mom’s “fight-or-flight” stress response. Mom’s hypothalamus then released hormones that communicated with her pituitary gland, which communicated with her adrenal gland, and then BOOM. Her body was instantly filled with high levels of stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine. Her whole body was now in what Walter Cannon at Harvard called the “stress response.” It was ready to outrun the threat, even though in reality, there was no threat to outrun. The only thing Mom could do was wait a week until her CT scan was scheduled.   

You may not realize how much power your healer has to harm your health. Consider this:

1. When you’re scared by what your healer says, your self-repair mechanisms flip off.

Your body is equipped with brilliant self-repair mechanisms, but as I describe in Mind Over Medicine, those self-repair mechanisms flip off when the stress response is activated. They only function properly when the nervous system is in the relaxation response. When Mom’s doctor delivered the news that she might have metastatic cancer without comforting her or softening the blow with other options for what it might be, he activated her stress response and inhibited her body’s ability to heal itself.

2. What you put into your mind affects your health outcome.

The “nocebo effect” (the placebo’s evil twin) is activated every time you put negative beliefs about your health into your mind. If you believe your disease is “chronic,” “incurable,” or “terminal,” you might be creating your own reality. Read here for scientific proof that negative beliefs affect your health.

3. Whatever your healer believes can come true.

If your health care provider believes you’ll have a negative outcome, it has been scientifically proven that you’re more likely to experience a bad outcome, simply because of your healer’s belief. Fortunately, the opposite is also true. If your healer believes you’ll have a full recovery, you’re more likely to get well.

4. Prognostic data can kill you.

When you get sick, it’s tempting to ask for statistics? “Doc, what’s the chance that I’ll survive this?” When you ask (or even if you don’t ask), your doctor is likely to start spouting off numbers like “You have a 20% 5-year survival.” In other words, there’s an 80% chance that you’ll die in 5 years. But here’s the kicker. The minute you put those numbers into your mind, you replace hope with helplessness, and it weakens your immune system and makes you more susceptible to disease. Case study after case study demonstrates that when someone is told they have three months to live, they tend to die in three months- even when the autopsy finds out they had a misdiagnosis! What you don’t know could save your life.

5. HOPE heals, but withdrawing hope can make you sick.

In one story from Bernie Siegel’s Love, Medicine & Miracles, a chemotherapy regimen called “EPOH” was being studied in a research protocol for efficacy. Most of the study centers were reporting consistent results—some benefit from the chemotherapy, but nothing earth-shattering. But one study center was getting dramatically better results, so the research team investigated. What were they doing differently? Turns out the doctor in the center with better results had renamed the chemotherapy regimen. Instead of telling his patients they were getting EPOH, he rearranged the letters and dosed them with HOPE. Physicians tend to make a huge mistake by robbing patients of HOPE in the name of “being realistic” and “looking at the statistics.” We’re so afraid of offering false hope that we forget how powerful hope is as medicine. How can there such a thing as “false hope?” In my research on those who had spontaneous remissions from seemingly “incurable” illnesses, they all had hope- against all odds- and then miracles happened.

The Whole Health Medicine Institute

Because this issue is so near and dear to my heart, I founded the Whole Health Medicine Institute, a training program for physicians. One of our missions is to help doctors embrace what it means to be a true healer, which includes how to deliver bad news in a way that heals, rather than harms. Because many healers are not doctors but nurse practitioners, midwives, acupuncturists, chiropractors, physician assistants, therapists, and health coaches, we are now expanding the Whole Health Medicine Institute to include other health care providers. The four-month program will be launching in July with a three-day live event in San Francisco featuring me, Martha Beck, PhD, Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, and Anne Davin, PhD. Other guest teachers include Bernie Siegel, Larry Dossey, and Bruce Lipton. Learn more about the Whole Health Medicine Institute and register to participate here.

I’ll be writing more next week about the kinds of healthy methods for delivering bad news that we teach at the Whole Health Medicine Institute. But until then, let’s get back to my mother.

What Happened To Mom?

Unfortunately, in spite of her best efforts to stay calm, a week of worrying that she had metastatic cancer left Mom so wound up that her back went out. By the time she got the good news, Mom could barely walk. The scary news her doctor had delivered without a lick of comfort not only failed to help her heal; it actually harmed her body.

The good news is that Mom doesn’t actually have cancer. She has a Schmorl’s node, a totally benign condition that needs no further treatment. In fact, when her doctors looked back over some old X-rays after the fact, they found evidence of a Schmorl’s node way back on her old films. Her week of worry could have been avoided if someone had bothered to review her old records.

Has This Happened To You?

Doctors and other healers never mean to hurt their patients. We’re honestly doing the best we can, and our hearts are pure with good intentions. But we can always improve how we practice our healing arts. Patients can also be proactive about learning to protect themselves from this kind of harm. In Part Two of this blog, I’ll be writing about what you can do to avoid being harmed like Mom was.

Has anything like this ever happened to you? Tell us your stories in the comments.

Love,

PS. I’m a huge fan of Sheila Kelley’s S Factor, the feminine movement pole dancing practice, and I’m going to be attending Sheila’s live event in August to remind myself how to get in touch with my “erotic creature.” Sheila is the most brilliant modern-day feminist- totally devoted to the Divine Feminine but in a way that is so empowering and raw and honoring of our wholeness. The S Factor retreat I did four years ago completely transformed me and my relationship to my own sexuality. Plus, I love to dance and commune with women who are devoted to aligning with their true selves. Are you one of them? I’d love to see you there! You can register here.

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24 Comments

  1. Peggy

    Oh my, it indeed has! After a mammogram many years ago, I received a
    call from my doctor telling me that a large lump was seen. After
    further testing, nothing was found. To this day I remember the agony of
    waiting and planning for my imminent death. After much soul searching,
    I made the decision to discontinue mammograms, and I am comfortable
    with my decision. I so feel for you mother–what an awful experience for
    her!

    p.s. Love, love, Mind over Medicine, and eagerly await your new book! You have helped me IMMENSELY. Blessings to you, Lissa

    Reply
    • Viv

      Christ said it best: “physician heal thyself” and share the “good news”

      Having experienced the wrong end of a therapist who is determined to hunt out the addict and every possible crappy ego idea known to man, in everyone else, it was the worst encounter of my life. She was determined to prove me an addict because I smoke and enjoy wine. She was so “worried” about me and said she would be there for my during my so called withdrawel phase, which she described in horrible detail, and which I knew was total nonsense

      So I happily stopped (wanting her to learn that she way off track) for her so-called 30 days – and then happily started again. She even imagined I was suicidal and sent me a long story about that. I have never met anyone more unloving and unkind.

      As far as I am concerned, nothing is bad for you unless you decide it is and even though a physician said my lungs were perfect, he still wanted me to stop. Much like the Water Documentary, I assume everything I take into my body, is fantastic for me. Our bodies are automatically designed to be self-healing.

      As a healer myself, a woman was sent to me who had been shot accidentally as a child by her brother and had been improperly diagnosed as never being able to walk properly again. Long story short – as she left my home, she was delighted to discover that her legs were the same length and that she could walk perfectly. 3 days later, a friend called alarmed that she was in huge pain and was in hospital and doctors were scanning for umpteen viruses etc. One doctor finally took an x-ray and discovered that her spine was completely straight and perfect.

      Her “pain” was the result of using muscles that she had not used in over 20 years.

      I think the only “drug” to get over is the one where someone else thinks there is something bad out there that can possibly affect your health and divinity.

      I can get drunk on a glass of water and stay completely sober on wine. So can anyone else.

      Healing is simple. Assume someone (including yourself) as perfect, and God does the rest.

      🙂

      Agreed – I just delete any so-called bad news about what is so-called bad for whoever wants to think it so.

      Reply
  2. Peggy

    Oh, I must add that I ‘had’ ovarian cancer as a result of a high CA125 blood test. The oncologist removed my uterus, ovaries, etc. and found fibroid tumors which are benign and I already knew I had these. Again, the agony of waiting! Maybe doctors are too afraid to be conservative and therefore press the alarm button so readily? If the worst case scenario is give, perhaps all bases are covered..don’t like it. 🙁

    Reply
  3. GrammarPolice

    When I was in my 20s around 1980, a young female noticed polyps on my cervix, took a biopsy & said, “It’s probably cancer, but let’s not worry about it until the test results come back next week.” Same scenario as your mom. When I got the good news that th polyps were benign, I told the dr what I thought of her bedside manner & found another dr. I have had three other similar situations in the last 40 years, & they have all turned out to be physically harmless but emotionally traumatic. Now I have great drs who combine common sense with skill & kindness. Don’t med students have courses on how to deal with patients in these situations? My drs may just be the kind intelligent ones. I hate thinking of all the horror stories like these out there.

    Reply
    • Taffy Twoshoes

      Surprised the GrammarPolice didn’t mention the typo/grammatical error in the original blog! Glad you found good docs!

      Reply
  4. GrammarPolice

    That’s “young female doctor” below. Meh

    Reply
  5. Amie

    I was diagnosed with ALS. The neurologist gave me the standard, you have 2-5 yrs prognosis, and suggested I get a third opinion. I immediately started progressing at a much faster rate. After the third confirmation, there came a point where something in me refused to listen to the doctors. I had two small children. Every fiber of my being decided I wasn’t going to leave them. It’s been 16 yrs now, and I am physically much much worse, but I am still here!

    Reply
  6. Pam

    I have a history of breast lumps. Finding a newly discovered lump I went to my gyno doctor. She did not really direct me to having more tests just gave me surgeons names. This was while my father was dying of lung cancer. I made an appointment to have an ultrasound done and was convinced I had cancer. I had to reschedule the appt. because the day it was to be done was the day of my father’s funeral. I was a total wreck with worry. That was 1993. I still have lumps and one of my sisters developed breast cancer. She is cancer free today and I stay positive that I will not develop cancer. My mother also died from colon cancer. I truly believe we manifest what we tell ourselves.

    Reply
  7. Alex

    When I was 21, I was told that I had an illness that was chronic and I’d have to be on medication for the rest of my life. I believed it for 20 years and took the medication compliantly as I went along in life. After 20 years, my mind and body were in turmoil because of the medication cocktails I was being prescribed, and I suffered a catastrophic health crisis which led to disability. Turns out I never had anything chronic, and the meds were highly toxic and in turn, were insidiously wreaking more havoc than supporting my well-being. I no longer take any of this medication, nor do I have any kind of diagnosis or symptom that had led me into all of this, and my health and life are in abundant well-being at this time.
    To heal from the catastrophe that my life and health had become thanks to these negative and misguided beliefs which I took on from the established medical community, I found an expert herbalist to help me detoxify and regenerate. Most vitally, I turned to grounding meditation, qi gong, and energy and spiritual work (chakras, Kabbalah, medical intuition, Reiki). Not only did this allow me to once and for all heal, but it also taught me how to heal myself. I learned the power of energy and vibration, and to be aware of how it navigates through us.
    I agree, fear is one of our biggest agents of dis-ease and the like. Thank you for this wonderful article.

    Reply
  8. Patricia Scott

    Yep, me too. I had a pain in my abdomen, left side. Obviously, to me anyway, something was obstructing my colon as when stool passed through that side, I had extreme sharp pain. When I went to see my doctor he said, yes, he saw a lot of colon cancer and often tthis was how it presented. Then he scheduled further tests. I had just had a colonoscopy a few months before and it was clear but my brother had died of cancer before he was 60–and now I was sure I had cancer too. The next six weeks were excruciating for myself and my husband as we got my affairs in order.
    I didn’t have cancer. I changed my diet to mostly raw foods, eliminated dairy and gluten and my chiropractor treated me for parasites. My pain disappeared.
    Doctors are way too glib with the word ‘cancer’. I get that they do see cancer all the time but it’s a word that shouldn’t be spoken until it’s confirmed.

    Reply
  9. Janet Wright

    In February of this year I had a massive allergic reaction to some new drugs I was given. During my ER visit I had chest pains and they did an xray that showed enlarged lymph nodes in my mediastinum this led to an immediate CT Scan that showed a ‘nest’ of lymph nodes 3.5 cm. By the time I got to the oncologist the 3 cm nest of lymph nodes had grown to ‘a highly metabolic mass’ The following weeks finally led me to an oncologist, more tests and the oncologist telling me ‘It’s bad, it’s very bad. YOu have a poorly diffuse carcinoma of unknown origin” I asked him what the prognosis was and he said 3 months to 18 months.. I was shattered. But I came home and I had read your book… part of my WHOLE being didn’t believe the diagnosis.

    I’m finished with my first round of chemo and I will start a seven week regime of chemo & radiation in a few weeks. I got the news today that my lymph nodes are shrinking… They still don’t know what the primary tumor is..but I don’t care..
    I visualise ALL the time.. I rest and relax, I only am with people who are positive , uplifting and whom I enjoy. I know.. that I will melt this tumor away
    Janny
    PS I told the Oncologist what I believed and about the placebo effect.. and everytime I see him, even though I am bald now.. I look Good my color is good. Thank the universe for my allergic reaction.!!!!!

    Reply
  10. andiyoureastar

    I also think there is a part to be played here by the patient: knowing that it’s not benefiting anyone by worrying yourself to the extent of causing physical pain. Finding ways to deal with the stress of bad news whether health related or not could prevent that physical response. It might not always help the immediate stress response but it will help you talk yourself out of going into a worried frenzy. I can have control over my emotions, I will never have control over how a health care provider decides to share bad news with me. I can control how I perceive the information I am given. I think it’s great that Lissa wants to coach doctors/healers into being better at giving bad news but for people reading this who are dealing with this, maybe there is a way that you can do something today to control that stress you feel.

    Reply
  11. chicagoborn

    It was a very long time ago. I was thirty two years old and a practicing optimist blissful and filled with joyful plans for my life. I had been wondering about a small lump in my neck, so finally went to see a surgeon at my family doctor’s suggestion. He mater of factly told me that it was cancer then proceeded to add that it might be necessary to do something to my voice box during surgery. That scared the heck out of me. I had a three year old son who could very well be left motherless.
    The surgery was successful, the nodule, though cancerous was localized.
    All lymph nodes were removed and my voice box was left intact. But for a few weeks I went about my life with a smile on the outside while inside I fwuaked with fear of the outcome.

    Why couldn’t he have explained the pros as well as the cons and kept that dreaded word out of the conversation. In those days cancer was a death sentence. Doctors need to be taught humanity in medical school Especially surgeons.

    Reply
  12. Balance

    There’s useful stuff here.

    As well, I think you have overstated with “Doctors and other healers never mean to hurt their patients. We’re honestly doing the best we can, and our hearts are pure with good intention”. This can perpetuate the problem of handing over one’s good sense and sense of instinct to a healer. NO. Not all healers are pure of heart and yes, healers can, do, and have intentionally hurt those who entrust them for care.

    The lessons from my multiple experiences: Always trust my instinct and never see a healer of any kind out of scarcity or fear. I am better off not getting care at all than seeking it from healers I just don’t feel good about, for whatever reason.

    Reply
  13. Thom

    Not cancer in my case. Some years ago I had a knee problem, my lef tknee kept “going out” on me. My excellent GP sent me to 2 specialists. The first was “showing off” to a resident. He pulled and pushed, told the resident “that’s all you need to do”, and sent me for X-rays. 2nd visit: no X-rays had showed up; same resident; the doc. said they may or may not be able to help; suggested physio. I happily embarrased him, in front of his resident,, telling him that I had been doing physio while aiting for the appt. He never asked about history or anything else, just assumed he knew everything.
    When I got an appt. with the other specialist he asked for more information, offered the possibility of micro-surgery, the fact that it may/may not help, and the risks of anasthesia. A couple of chiropractors tried to help. From the second one I figured how to put the knee back myself – it was the meniscus slipping out, probably due to weakedned/stretched ligaments. Then I discovered, by ‘accident’, that it would click back in with a full heel-to-butt flexion. Lots of strange looks when I did that in the middle of dancing. No more problems now.
    As an aside – negative comments on enything can derail careers, self confidence, and self esteem; an education I attribute to my 2 exes.
    Hoe everybody is having a positive day.

    Reply
  14. Tanya Bolton

    ello lissa, it is morning and Australia and I woke up to read this post. Wow it really touched me. I have been fighting a battle to the last two days with myself and the world. You have really brought me back to feeling love and hope within myself. I am a strong believe that yourself is your best friend, you hero and your light. Sometimes in this crazy world we can lose that and forget how we truly love or think about something. And just become a matching ant. Your mums story inspired me and I am so so happy to read that there is a program coming out to train the medical industry more with compassion. That is something so important that has been lost in the education of medicine. I’m also so happy she doesn’t have cancer! Sad that she had a week of harmful energy inside her which attacked her body. I heard a great quote the other day which said ‘Heal me as if I’m alive not dying’

    Reply
  15. ccassara

    I had to tweet this, it’s so timely in ways you can’t even imagine. Or maybe you can.
    Carol
    http://www.carolcassara.com

    Reply
  16. Jen

    My experience was a little different, in the opposite direction. Intuitively, I felt that the lump in my breast was not “nothing” as my GYN thought, and dismissed my concerns and questions. i was told “we’ll keep an eye on it”. I underwent a month of stress, not wanting to be a hypochondriac, but finally went to my GP who tried to aspirate it. I was in having scans the next day, and surgery for stage II breast cancer.
    I’ve since learned that I’m one of those people who are comforted by tests and statistics. It is when someone pats me on the head and says “don’t worry” that I automatically do. I survived 2 1/2 years of treatments and complications, because I was loved and supported. and I’m now learning that it was my stressful nature that caused the cancer.
    My thought process is indeed the hardest thing for me to “cure”!
    I really would like to switch careers at this point Lissa. i feel a need to work in the health care field and return the love and healing that I’ve recieved from my “non-traditional” healers. Your work is giving me the courage to do that. thank you!!

    Reply
  17. bulldoghollister

    YES. I was an experienced, yet retired, surgical Physician Assistant. I had a change in bowel movements and knew to have it checked out (42 y.o.). I was under twilight anesthesia when the GI doc did my colonoscopy. I could see something on the screen and her comment about it not looking good. I became nervous already. Upon re-dressing, she told me that a mass was in my colon and looked sinister. I immediately scheduled a CT scan w/contrast for that night and insisted the doc be there or someone from her office. I had never met her before. As my husband, the doctor and I waited for the results, she began telling us about the poor survival rates of colon cancer. She was paged, left, came back in minutes to tell me I had colon cancer, and that it has spread to the liver. Like your mom, I went into panic overdrive. The next 10 days were straight out of hell. She continued to argue w/me that it was cancer, even though one of her colleagues was always positive: the blood work is negative, what is on the liver could be benign hemangiomas, etc. When she heard this, she would get mad at me, asked who told me that, then state she was going to call them!!! I left the area, on a friend’s recommendation (a pediatrician) and found a new GI. He could see on my first visit I was about to totally lose it. He sat with us for hours, explained possibilities but was very positive and comforting. He set up test dates and visit w/a surgeon all in that first visit. We went directly to the surgeon. He, also was amazing. This was on a Wednesday. By the end of the day I had all tests scheduled for Friday and surgery the following Monday. The surgeon was absolutely incredible. He stated his concerns, but was so kind and patient. The main thing I will never forget was that he was personable, had pictures of his children on his office desk and told me: “No matter what we find, I will promise you I will have the best team to make sure you will live a good life and be able to see your grandchildren one day.” I was relieved quite a bit. First test Friday morning showed the liver to have the benign tumors. He came out to tell us and shared our tears. He immediately cancelled the rest of the tests and oncologist visit for that day. Surgery Monday showed a completely benign mass and everything was perfectly healthy. To this day I keep in touch w/that surgeon and my GI. I will never forget their constant hopeful, empathetic, and personable treatment to my family and me. I wrote to his entire team, the CEO of the hospital w/a long letter of praise. I should have known better, as a health professional, but as your mom, I was immediately kicked into overdrive w/terror. Besides complaining to her, her medical group and her hospital, I filed a complaint w/the AMA. I just wish she would have been reprimanded for her unethical and incorrect conduct. She was certainly not a professional. I feel this should definitely be on her record. The surgeon told me months later that he showed his wife my letter and that she cried telling him she was so touched by learning in detail what he did as a surgeon and how it affected his patients.

    Reply
  18. Kelly Friend

    Thank you for this article. My oncologist told me that I was incurable and the options I had were to do the same drug we already did, that did not work, or he had put a few “texts” into some other doctors to see if there was a new protocol to follow. I passed out at this news and when I came to I looked my doctor straight in the eyes and told him that I believe in miracles, and that I had an angel watching over me, I left that day and have never stepped foot into his office since. Later that week I opened my email to find an email from Mind Body Green that had an article from you leading me to Mind Over Medicine and later to Radical Remission by Kelly Turner. This doctors approach for delivering news was exactly what you talked about in your book as being the reason people don’t survive! I decided then and there I didn’t have to believe what he said and would continue to have hope and determination! The fire inside of me was lit less than a chapter in. I have now switched to an integrative oncologist and could not be happier. My doctor makes eye contact, doesn’t wear scrubs and the first words out of his mouth after introducing himself were, “I don’t believe in the word incurable.” I have you to thank for leading me down the correct path!!!! Thank you a million times over!

    Reply
  19. Nivedita Mehta

    Such a valuable article post Lissa. I wish there was a way to integrate communication guidelines in the training modules of all health care providers. Gratitude to you!

    Reply
  20. Dave Morris

    When I was first qualified working as a junior house officer we had a patient of 63 transferred in who was told he had multiple myeloma (prognosis in those days usually a matter of months max) – he was devastated – 24 hours later when bloods were rerun turned out he has got a benign condition which at most MIGHT turn to myeloma in 10 -20 years time. Consultants gave him the great news but he did not believe them – said they were only teling him that to make him feel better. He stayed in his bed on his side facing the wall and was dead three days later! I had only been qualified a few weeks and now 20 yrs on I remain both stunned by this man and always grateful for the early lesson to mind what I say to patients at all times

    Reply
  21. Cyndie

    And I got yelled at by all my friends cuz I said I had not been to a Dr in maybe 15 years. I don’t get sick. I tell myself, I don’t get sick. My mind is constantly thinking, I am not going to get sick or any of those ailments normal 50+ people get. Yes I was at the Dr this week for possible rotator cuff….but felt rather rushed by the NP. I just don’t think going to the Dr is going to be a positive experience and I eliminate all negative and toxic things in my life, Drs, news, toxic people, bad foods etc etc etc. Thats how I got to your site! I like YOU!!!

    Reply
  22. Roddy Gibbs

    “3. What your healer believes comes true” Could someone please post the evidence for this? I think there may have been a few study citations in Mind Over Medicine. Thanks!

    Reply

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