The Mind-Body connection - complete treatment of cancer

The Mind-Body Connection

Complete treatment of cancer requires approaches from many directions. Conventional strategies, in combination with natural medicines, provide the body with the physical tools it needs to defeat the disease. Especially important are strategies that harness the spiritual and emotional powers of healing. In some cases, these methods serve to orchestrate the body’s response to illness. In others, the benefits may be less direct-a greater sense of well-being, an enhanced feeling of calm in the face of calamity, or a more profound focus on the truly important things in life. We encourage you to draw on your body’s own inNate healing presence and the healing power of the mind and human spirit.

The Link Between the Mind and the Immune System

As discussed in Chapter 5, psychoneuroimmunology is a relatively new field of research dedicated to understanding the interactions among the emotional state, nervous system function, and the immune system, Through their scientific studies, researchers have documented some thing that many people innately knew: The human mind has a profound influence on one’s state of health. In particular, our moods and attitudes profoundly affect the ability of the immune system to function. Simply stated, when we are happy and optimistic, our immune system works much better. Conversely, when we respond negatively to stress, the system tends to break down.

The greater the stress, the greater the impact on the immune system. Here’s just one example: For many people, the loss of a spouse is perhaps the most stressful of life’s events. In a landmark study published in 1977, twenty-six bereaved spouses were documented to have a clear link between the extent of grief and significantly lower immune function, as measured by the reduced activity of natural killer cells. Subsequent studies further demonstrated that bereavement, depression, and stress significantly diminish important immune functions.

It comes as no surprise that a diagnosis of cancer, and the stress of dealing with a life-threatening chronic disease, can pack a huge emotional wallop. Still, it is possible to boost immune function by consciously creating positive emotional states. In perhaps a sign of things to come, several cancer treatment centers have developed specialized psychoneuroimmunology programs for cancer patients and their families.

Elements of these programs include:

  • Relaxation and imagery training
  • Spiritual meditation
  • Stress management
  • Support groups for patients, women, and families
  • Individual, couples, and family counseling
  • Psychoeducational groups
  • Educational resources
  • Humor therapy


One of the most powerful healing techniques known costs nothing has negative side effects, and fits perfectly into any treatment plan. No matter what faith you embrace, you can use the power of prayer to lead you to better health-of body, mind, and soul.

Some people reading this book may be surprised to learn that prayer can be considered an alternative medicine. Indeed, many practitioners of conventional medicine cling to the notion that spirituality lies outside the scope of medical care. They believe that faith is not amenable to serious scrutiny, that at best it’s merely a relic from less-enlightened ages, a crutch for the unscientifically minded.

The fact is, faith and the power of prayer are powerful healing forces. They’ve even been validated by several rigorous scientific studies. And today many patients innately feel that addressing their spiritual needs must be an essential part of their healing process. In a recent poll of 1,000 U.S. adults, 79 percent of the respondents endorsed the belief that spiritual faith and prayer can help people recover from disease, and 63 percent agreed that physicians should talk to patients about spiritual faith and prayer. Indeed, we would argue that not to include a spiritual dimension to a patient’s plan for treatment and recovery is to be medically irresponsible.

One of the leaders in bringing the healing power of prayer to the forefront is Larry Dossey, author of the best-selling books Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine (HarperCollins, 1993) and Prayer Is Good Medicine (HarperCollins, 1996). .In these books, He provides a thorough review of the scientific evidence. Not surprisingly, he found that prayer has received relatively little attention by the research community. His systematic analysis of more than 4.3 million published reports indexed on Medline (the U.S. government’s medical database) from 1980 to 1996 revealed only 364 studies that included faith, religion, or prayer as one of the treatment parameters. The numbers are small, but the conclusion is huge: The data show that prayer and religious commitment promote good health and healing.

Scientific investigation into the healing power of prayer has shown hat it can affect physical processes in a variety of organisms. Specifically, studies have explored the effects of prayer on humans and on nonhuman subjects, including water, enzymes, bacteria, fungi, yeast, red blood cells, cancer cells, pacemaker cells, seeds, plants, algae, moth larvae,, mice, and chicks. In these studies, prayer affected the manner in which these organisms grew or functioned. What scientists discovered-no doubt to their amazement-is that prayer affected a number of biological processes, including

  • Enzyme activity
  • Growth rates of leukemic white blood cells
  • Mutation rates of bacteria
  • Germination and growth rates of various seeds
  • Firing rates of pacemaker cells
  • Healing rates of wounds
  • Size of goiters and tumors
  • Time required to awaken from anesthesia
  • Autonomic effects such as electrodermal activity of the skin
  • Hemoglobin levels

In our opinion, given the scientific support of prayer’s beneficial effects, not praying for the best possible outcome may be the equivalent of deliberately withholding an effective drug or a surgical procedure.

If praying is good for others, can we do it for ourselves? Absolutely Herbert Benson, another pioneer in mind-body medicine, has studied the physiological changes that prayer sets in motion. He found that patients who prayed or meditated evoked their body’s relaxation response. This response-the exact opposite of the stress response, the “fight-or-flight” reaction that we feel during tense situations–includes decreases in heart rate, breathing rate, muscle tension, and sometimes even blood pressure. The medical implications of the relaxation response are enormous and may serve as the underlying basis for most mind-body techniques, such as guided imagery (discussed below) and meditation. The relaxation response has been shown to produce useful effects in a variety of different disease states. It can also help cancer patients better tolerate chemotherapy, radiation, and surgical procedures. For example, cancer patients who undergo chemotherapy treatment and learn to evoke the relaxation response are significantly less likely to experience nausea and fatigue.

Creating the Relaxation Response

Here is a simple exercise we use with many of our cancer patients to help them relaxation response and program white blood cells to destroy tumors. The exercise will improve your ability breathe from the diaphragm, achieve the relaxation response, and reress. Practice the following for at least 5 minutes, twice a day.

  • Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit or lie down.
  • Place your feet slightly apart and find a comfortable position for your arms.
  • Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth.
  • Concentrate on your breathing.
  • nhale while slowly counting to four. Notice with each breath you take that you are breathing effortlessly by using your diaphragm. You should feel as if the air is first expanding into your abdomen and then up into your lungs, then extending warmth to all parts of your body.
  • Pause for one second, then slowly exhale to a count of four. As you exhale, your abdomen should move inward. As the air flows out, feel the tension and stress leaving your body.
  • As you begin to relax, clear your mind of any distractions by imag ining a peaceful, healing environment. Bathe yourself in the feeling of love.
  • Begin to focus on the location of the cancer. Imagine that your white blood cells are flowing into the area and eating the cancer away like the little Pac-Men they are.
  • Repeat the process for 5 to 10 minutes or until you achieve a sense of deep relaxation.

If you find yourself having trouble learning how to relax or perform visualization exercises, we recommend contacting the Academy for Guided Imagery (800-726-2070) or visiting their web site (www. to find a practitioner who specializes in guided imagery. You can also ask your doctor for a referral. Taking a yoga class is also a great way to learn how to breathe with your diaphragm and learn how to relax.

Effective Prayer

Spindrift Research is a publicly supported foundation that since 1969 has been dedicated to the scientific research of healing through prayer. The experts at Spindrift have identified two main types of prayer: directed prayer, in which prayers state a specific goal, image, or outcome, and undirected prayer, in which no specific outcome is requested. Surprisingly, perhaps, the researchers found that while both types of prayer produced results, the undirected approach was quantitatively more effective, frequently yielding results twice as great, or more, as those arising from the directed approach.

Undirected prayer involves letting go of any preconceived outcome. It is a simple affirmation of trust and faith in God that is at once a source of release, peace, and hope. Embracing the concept “The will be done,” such prayer is thought to confer its own immediate blessing, regardless of physiological outcome. Through undirected prayer, a new perspective can be achieved, one in which cancer can be seen less as an

For further information on the role of faith and prayer in healing, contact:

  • International Center for the Integration of Health and Spirituality
  • (ICIHS)
  • 6110 Executive Boulevard Suite 680
  • Rockville, MD 20852
  • Bastyr University
  • Department of Spirituality in Health and Medicine
  • 14500 Juanita Drive
  • Kenmore, WA 98028
  • WA 98028
  • Spindrift
  • 2407 La Jolla Drive NW
  • Salem, OR 97304

enemy and more as a powerful teacher leading a person to the doorway to spiritual awakening. In the words of Paramahansa Yogananda,”your trial did not come to punish you, but to awaken you-to make you realize that you are a part of Spirit and that just behind the spark of your life is the Flame of Infinity.”

Guided Imagery

As we’ve just learned, prayer is thought to be most effective when it’s undirected-not focused on any specific goal or outcome. In contrast,the best way we know to harness the healing power of the mind is through a technique known as guided imagery. This method enhances well-being through the use of relaxation and mental visualization.

Carl Simonton is one of the leading pioneers in the practice of using guided imagery and visualization in cancer therapy. After earning his medical degree from the University of Oregon Medical School, She completed a three-year residency in radiation oncology. It was during that time that he became convinced that a patient’s state of mind could influence the ability to survive cancer.

In a pilot study conducted from 1974 to 1981, She assessed the impact of the technique. First he taught patients to visualize their cancer cells or tumors as accurately as possible. He explained that cancer cells are weak, mixed up, disorganized. He instilled in his patients the confidence that their bodies could naturally and normally defend against cancer. He also encouraged patients to visualize their treatment as powerful and effective, capable of producing the desired outcome. Most important, he asked patients to visualize their white blood cells as a numerous and powerful army, attacking and destroying the cancer. At the end of the study, he discovered that the technique increased survival time and improved quality of life. He published his results in Getting Well Again: A Step-by-Step Self-Help Guide to Overcoming Cancer for Patients and Their Families (Bantam, 1978).

Predictably, the medical community was slow to accept She findings. Gradually the situation changed, and now many oncologists, hospitals, and cancer treatment centers offer his program or Similar visualization techniques for their patients. In 1997 the American Medical Association honored She video Affirmations for Getting Well Again (Touchstar Productions, 1997) as the best wellness film of the year.

She books and tapes are available at most major book-stores and through online outlets. We also recommend several other books and audiotapes for learning how to employ guided imagery against cancer, including those written by Petrea King or Belle- ruth Neparstak and available through Innervisions Studio (www.

For children we recommend Healing Images for Children: Teaching Relaxation and Guided Imagery to Children Facing Cancer and Other Serious illnessesby Nancy C. Klein.


Understandably, many people with cancer feel that they have to give up their regular exercise while coping with their disease and its treatment Stress, strain, and fatigue can deplete the body’s precious supply of energy. We would make the case, however, that exercise is never more important than when trying to help your body recover from cancer. Physical movement keeps the body in optimal working condition, which in turn helps your cells defeat the disease and allows your body to respond better to conventional treatments. Exercise also offers psychological and emotional benefits.

Your exercise program needn’t be grueling or exhausting. In fact, tai chi (described in Chapter 10, Other Alternative Medical Therapies) or yoga may be the most beneficial. Even something as simple as walking 20 to 30 minutes most days of the week can be helpful. Ask your health care team to design a program that’s right for you.

There is plenty of scientific evidence that exercise provides benefits. In studies in women with breast cancer, for example, women who exercise report having higher self-esteem, improved body image, less nausea during chemotherapy treatment, and less fatigue, depression, and insomnia.The exercise does not have to be strenuous: One study showed that women who walked at their own pace for 20 to 30 minutes 4 or 5 times per week reported feeling less fatigued and less emotionally distressed and had an improved physical performance level. One of the other benefits of regular exercise in breast cancer patients is that exercise helps prevent weight gain. Weight gain is a troublesome and potentially serious problem for breast cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. Women who gain more weight during chemotherapy treatment are more likely to have breast cancer recurrences and are more likely to die of their breast cancer than patients who gain less weight.