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Fighting Cancer From WithinHow to Use the Power of Your Mind For Healing
By Martin L. Rossman
Holt PaperbacksCopyright © 2003 Martin L. Rossman
All right reserved.
Fighting Cancer From Within
1Cancer Diagnosis: Nightmare, Challenge, or Bump in the Road?The diagnosis is cancer, but what that means remains to be seen.
--Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.
Almost everyone responds to the diagnosis of cancer with a period of shock, numbness, and disbelief. This is the mind's way of protecting us from having to process more information and emotion than we can handle, and it lasts for a variable period of time. As time passes, and you are able to better accept what's happening, the way you deal with this illness will depend on how you perceive it. The way you perceive it will likely be a product of how you generally react to a crisis, colored by your conscious and unconscious beliefs about cancer, its treatment, and its outcomes. The distress you will suffer early on will come more from this set of perceptions and beliefs than from the disease, and that is why it is important to address your reactions.After the initial shock, people tend to have one of four common responses to their diagnosis: they perceive it as a nightmare, a challenge, a bump in the road, or they just stay numb throughout the whole experience and never really deal with it consciously. There are psychological benefits to each of these responses in the short run, but in the long run, there are advantages to adopting some attitudes over others. Fighting cancer is most often a marathon rather than a sprint,because modern cancer treatment has changed many cancer journeys from short-term illnesses to illnesses that people live with over long periods of time. Because one perspective may help you better than another, and because it is possible to change your perspective, your automatic response bears examination and questioning.Assuming that your goal is survival, let's look at each of these responses to see what they may bring to your fight with cancer. Responding to a cancer diagnosis as a nightmare is probably the most common early response. Cancer has become a symbol in our culture for everything bad. Relentless, out of control, sneaky, evil, and deadly, it's the bogeyman of health. It brings up fear of pain, death, loss of control, surgeries and procedures, toxic chemotherapies, and damaging radiation. It may make you feel isolated, different than your peers, and even ashamed. It brings into your life something you don't want to have and something you can't ignore. It costs a great deal of time and money and affects the lives of everyone around you. It threatens to take your life. It's easy to see why you'd view it as a nightmare.The first question I will encourage you to ask of your response is whether it serves you in your healing goals. Does this view help you if your goal is to overcome and survive this illness? Does it mobilize your will to fight? Your will to endure? Does it offer any hope, any bright spots, anything worth fighting for?The one advantage I can see to the nightmare scenario is that it has the capability of mobilizing your anger and determination to overcome this intruder. I am reminded of an important bit of psychological insight that came my way courtesy of Mickey Mouse.I was speaking at a conference on mind-body medicine held at the Disneyland Hotel several years ago. My friends and colleagues, two of the major researchers in mind-body effects on cancer, Drs. Carl Simonton and Jeanne Achterberg, were there, and we decided to go over to the theme park. As night fell, we worked our way over to the lagoon to see Phantasmic, having heard it was a great sound and light show.The show was organized around Mickey Mouse, who appears onstage in his sorcerer's apprentice robes. He soon falls asleep andstarts to dream, and at first his dreams, projected onto a fine mist sprayed over the lagoon, are of pleasant things from old Disney movies. But then his dreams start to go bad--dancing pink elephants start to become distorted and scary and characters from other movies start to appear--the Big Bad Wolf, witches, evil queens, and monsters of all kinds. The music becomes louder, cacophonous, disturbing, and the lighting casts a progressively ominous mood. At the climax of what now has become a full-fledged nightmare, the whole lagoon bursts into flames! It's a scene from Hades. A huge 30-foot dragon menaces Mickey onstage as the music comes to a crescendo pitch, and when the tension is at its highest and you don't know how he's going to survive, he suddenly pulls out his sword and says, in his high-pitched voice, "Hey, wait a minute! This is my dream!" and runs the dragon through. The flames disappear, the lights come on, the music becomes triumphant--Mickey is awake! He's taken control! The happy strains of "Zip-A-Dee-Do-Dah" ring over the lagoon as a Mississippi riverboat comes around the bend with all the Disney characters singing and dancing and waving with joy.We were all astounded. Mickey Mouse had reminded us that things not only happen to us, but we happen to things as well. We can submit to our dragons or stand up to them and fight for ourselves if we choose. Carl Jung, the eminent Swiss psychologist, said that the challenge to the conscious mind when it faces the fears that can live in the unconscious is symbolized by the legend of St. George and the Dragon. His conclusion? "You may conquer the dragon or it may eat you, but one way or the other, you have to deal with the same dragon."By focusing on the mind-body aspect of cancer, I'm not implying that cancer is a psychological disease. I am saying, however, that the psychology of how you respond to cancer can make quite a difference in both the quality and even the length of your journey with it. My concern about staying in the nightmare mode is that it is tiring, draining, and disempowering. It gives all the power to the disease. Seeing cancer as only a nightmare obscures any possibility of overcoming it or even learning anything valuable from the experience.Dr. Julia Rowland, the director of the Office of Cancer Survivorship at the National Institutes of Health, reported a survey funded by the National Cancer Institute in which 2,000 women with breast cancer were asked the question, "Is there anything else about your experience as a breast cancer survivor that you would like to share here?" The reviewers were struck by the many reports of self-discovery, insight, hope, and resilience and commented that if you didn't know it was cancer that had prompted these discoveries you might well seek out what these women had experienced.Nobody, including the patients who were the recipients of these unexpected benefits, would consciously choose to have cancer, but the point is that there are gifts that can come with cancer, and it seems that it would be a shame to go through it experiencing only the difficulties. Why not look for and cultivate any benefits, while simultaneously fighting the disease?A second common response to cancer is to experience it as a "bump in the road." It is viewed as something that happens to some people, isn't particularly meaningful, there is treatment for it, and some people are cured and some are not. George is a seventy-year-old retired military man and a longtime smoker who finally quit a few years ago. When a spot was found on his lungs, he went through the process of diagnosis and treatment without any outward signs of distress, though I'm sure he was scared at times. He went through each step of the diagnostic and treatment process, trusting his doctor's recommendations, not seeking or needing a second opinion, not needing to know about alternatives, and simply accepting it as something that life brings, just as it had brought everything else he'd experienced.He had a part of his lung removed, came through the surgery well, recovered, and was back playing golf a few months later. He doesn't talk about it, doesn't seem to worry about it, and doesn't seem to spend any time or energy on it. I've seen many other people take this route, and I admire and even envy people who meet life's challenges this way. But I'm not sure that this is a way of reacting that can be learned. I think it's a result of temperament, culture, and upbringing. If you'relucky enough to be a bump-in-the-roader you won't suffer the anguish of the nightmare responder or the excitement and even joy of the adventurer. Even so, you may find that a number of the imagery techniques offered in this book may be helpful in handling some of the stress you experience, preparing for treatments, and making difficult decisions.A third common reaction is that some people respond to the diagnosis as a wake-up call, a challenge, or even an adventure. They may even seem relieved to let go of the day-to-day humdrum of life and be stimulated by a heroic challenge. Chuck was diagnosed with lung cancer in his early forties. The father of a young child, he was naturally shocked and scared, but soon settled into a typical (for him) attitude of "Okay, let's see what this brings and what we can make out of it." He learned everything he could about conventional and alternative treatments, and since conventional medicine really had little to offer him (unfortunately the tumor was not operable when it was discovered) he explored a great number of healers and healing methods, from nutrition to mind-body to traditional Hawaiian kahunas. He inspired many people with his attitude and optimism through even the most difficult parts of his journey and met each new challenge with courage and good humor. A good friend and astute observer remarked to me some time after Chuck's diagnosis, "You know, it's funny, but when Chuck was diagnosed with cancer, he seemed to relax!" It was true. Chuck was an adventurer at heart, and while he loved his family, friends, and his life dearly, maybe he wasn't cut out for a daily go-to-work life. He rose to the cancer challenge naturally and heroically, and it filled him with life and awareness. He fought hard to survive and met every turn in the road with both courage and curiosity.There has been some scientific research about attitudes and outcomes in cancer which is worth looking at, although always with the caveat that your opportunity and challenge is to find the attitude that works the best for you. British researchers Watson, Greer, and associates looked at survival in women diagnosed with breast cancer.1 They responded in four different ways: (1) Fighting Spirit--a desire to fightand conquer the disease; (2) Denial--no significant psychological response to diagnosis; (3) Resignation--acceptance of the situation, analogous to "bump in the road" response; and (4) Hopelessness and Helplessness--the nightmare response. When the research team looked at percentages of survival, the results reflected the same order as listed above, indicating that attitude and response is indeed linked to survival. Some other studies have not supported this finding, however. In 1998 Barrie Cassileth and others reviewed survival for people with advanced cancer three to eight years after their diagnosis. They were unable to link any psychosocial factor measured to length of survival.2 It's important to realize that this is a very complex and difficult area to research. Outcomes vary depending on what you measure.Here's some more encouraging data. The two studies mentioned above referred to people's initial adaptation or attitudes toward cancer and didn't look at what happens as people learn new coping skills or ways of dealing with the stresses and challenges that cancer can bring. A number of studies that do look at these factors are very encouraging.One of the most powerful is a study by UCLA psychiatrist Fawzy Fawzy, M.D., of newly diagnosed patients with malignant melanoma. Fawzy compared randomized matched control subjects who had usual care with a group that participated in a six-week treatment soon after diagnosis.3 This group, which met for only ninety minutes a week for six weeks, learned relaxation and active behavioral coping skills (ways to deal with stress), and had a chance to express their emotions and ask questions. Six years later Dr. Fawzy looked at the data and found that there was a remarkable advantage for the people who had been in the treatment groups. They were better adjusted, happier, and their immune system markers were much superior to control groups. Most important, in 34 patients in the treatment group there were only 3 deaths and 7 recurrences, compared to 10 deaths and 13 recurrences in the 34 patients in the usual care group.4 Because of the randomized and prospective research design of this study, it is powerful evidence that people can learn to deal with cancer in ways that not only contributeto their well-being but to their chances of overcoming the cancer itself.Another study by psychologist Dean Schrock investigating the effects of an eight-week group intervention for newly diagnosed breast and prostate cancer patients, based on the approach originated by Drs. Carl and Stephanie Simonton, showed similar results.5 A more recent study by University of Toronto psychologist Alastair Cunningham looked at twenty-two people with medically untreatable metastatic cancer who participated in a weekly group for a year, learning relaxation, guided imagery, and other active coping and healing skills. Oncologists assessed the expected survival of the treatment group patients at the beginning of the year. After the year, the researchers classified the degree of involvement and participation with the skills taught and classified the participants into three categories--low, medium, and high levels of participation. They found that length of survival correlated well to the degree of participation in the group activities. They went further and looked at a number of psychological themes and found five especially correlated to survival. Cunningham states, "These themes were (1) the ability to act and change; (2) willingness to initiate change; (3) application to self-help work; (4) relationships with others; and (5) quality of experience. Results on a 5-point scale measuring the subject's expectancy that psychological efforts would affect the disease also showed a strong relationship to survival. In contrast, there was no relationship between survival and four standard psychometric measures taken at the onset of therapy.6 It may be that using standard markers explains the Cassileth study's not identifying a correlation with survival.Another perspective on attitudes and adjustment to, or survival from, cancer is emerging from studies conducted by psychologist John Astin at the California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco. Astin refined Greer's model of fighting spirit versus resignation or hopelessness and found that women who could respond to challenges of breast cancer with both assertiveness and flexibility had the best adjustment and least distress, as compared to women who either rigidly attemptedto maintain control or failed to try to assert control at all. In other words, in cancer, as with most things in life, there are times when responding with a fighting spirit is most helpful and there are times when acceptance is most helpful. The challenge is to discover which response is most appropriate at any given time. This, of course, is the subject of the well-known Serenity Prayer frequently used by 12-step groups: "Lord, grant me the courage to change the things I can change, the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference." One of the effects I've noticed from the guided imagery techniques I'll teach you is that they often connect you to just those three things--courage, serenity, and wisdom--and help you to use each at the appropriate times.So it's questionable that your initial response to a cancer diagnosis can predict your outcome, but there is much stronger evidence that what you do next, and what you do over time has a greater influence--especially if you believe it can. Whatever your initial response, you have the opportunity to learn new ways of using your mind, new ways of coping with stress, and new ways of supporting the innate healing systems of your body.Whatever your usual way of dealing with difficulties, this book will teach you skills that can help you move from that initial reaction to one that can serve you better. To do that, you may well first need some help in order to manage what is usually the strongest and most common emotion to manage in dealing with cancer--fear.Dealing with FearDr. Larry LeShan, author of the book Cancer as a Turning Point, has said, "When you get diagnosed with cancer, every ghost and goblin of fear you have comes rushing though the rent that has been torn in the fabric of your self-identity." These fears are not only normal, they are almost inevitable, and we all handle them differently. Some people address fear head-on as a way of moving though it, while others avoidthis because they are afraid that the fear might overwhelm them. You may try to ignore fear, or repress it, or get very busy so as not to have free time to dwell on it. Fear can be paralyzing if you let it, and though this may be a good time to be contemplative, it isn't a great time to enter a prolonged paralysis. There is great pressure from doctors, friends, and family, as well as from your own psyche to "do something" about this problem, and very little time to be with the emotions the problem is precipitating.It's natural to have fears come up now, but it's also important to deal with your fears well. The high level of fear arousal you may feel at this time is somewhat useful in that it mobilizes you to find help and solve the problem, but if it is too strong and you can't break away from it, it can weaken you. You may experience high levels of anxiety, disturbed sleep, or loss of enjoyment, and depression may develop. But perhaps the most damaging thing about being overwhelmed by fear is that the fear may come between you and your strengths and resources, which are particularly needed at this time.Emotions are inherently changeable. We're going to take advantage of that to help you learn some ways to shift your emotional experience when you want to or need to, and help you be more effective in your journey with cancer.Following is a simple imagery experience to help you begin to shift how you feel. It will help you relax, begin to create a safe place of healing inside, and help you reconnect with your strengths. This is basically daydreaming on purpose--taking yourself in your mind to a beautiful, safe, and healing place, a place where you feel comfortable, cared for, and protected. This imagery relaxation process helps you to create a state of mental and physical relaxation in which your body's natural healing abilities can work without interference.As with all the imagery processes you'll find in this book, let yourself explore and notice what happens as you go through it. Get comfortable in a place where you won't be interrupted for about twenty to thirty minutes. Let others know you need privacy during this time, and unless there's a true emergency, to avoid interrupting you. You could havesomeone read the script below, in a calm voice, leaving a few seconds' pause at the ellipses ( ... ) for your imagery to develop and a little extra time at the paragraph breaks. You can also record the script below yourself, then listen to it, or you can order my recordings of this and the other imagery processes to guide you. However you decide to do it, let it be an exploration and see how you imagine the things I suggest.Your Healing PlaceTake a comfortable. position and let yourself begin to relax in your own way ... let your breathing get a little deeper and fuller ... but still comfortable ... with every breath in, notice that you bring in fresh air, fresh oxygen, fresh energy that fuels your body ... and with every breath out, imagine that you can release a bit of tension ... a bit of discomfort ... a bit of worry ... and let that deeper breathing and the thoughts you have of fresh energy in and tension and worry out be an invitation to your body and mind to begin to relax ... to begin to shift gears ... and let it be an easy and natural movement ... without having to force anything ... without having to make anything happen right now ... just letting it happen ... just breathing and relaxing ... breathing and energizing ... .
Come back to taking a few deeper breaths whenever you feel like relaxing even more deeply ... but for now, let your breathing take its own natural rate and its own natural rhythm ... and simply let the gentle movement of your body as it breathes allow you to relax naturally and comfortably ... almost without having to try ... .
And noticing how your right foot feels right now ... and how your left foot feels ... and noticing that just before you probably weren't aware of your feet at all ... but now that you turn yourattention to them, you can notice them and how they feel ... and notice the intelligence that is there in your feet ... and notice what happens when you silently invite your feet to relax ... and become soft and at ease ... and in the same way noticing the intelligence in your legs and releasing your legs ... and letting the intelligence in your legs respond in their own way ... and noticing any release and relaxation that happens ... without having to make any effort at all ... just softening and releasing ... and letting it be a comfortable and very pleasant experience ... .
And you can relax even more deeply and comfortably if you want to ... by continuing to notice the intelligence in different parts of your body and inviting them to soften and relax ... and noticing how they relax ... and you are in control of your relaxation and only relax as deeply as is comfortable for you ... and if you ever need to return your awareness to the outer world you can do that by opening your eyes and looking around and coming fully alert ... and if you need to respond to anything there you can do that ... and knowing that you can do this if you need to ... you can relax again and return your attention to the inner world of your imagination ... .
Inviting the intelligence of your low back, pelvis, and hips to release and relax ... and your abdomen and midsection ... and your chest and rib cage ... without effort or struggle ... just letting go but staying aware as you do ... .
Inviting the intelligence in your back and spine to soften and release ... in your low back ... mid-back ... between and across your shoulder blades ... and across your neck and shoulders ... the intelligence in your arms ... and elbows ... and forearms ... through your wrists and hands ... and the palms of the hands ... the fingers ... and thumbs ... .
Noticing the intelligence in your face and jaws and inviting them to relax ... to become soft and at ease ...and your scalpand forehead ... and your eyes ... even your tongue can be at ease ... .
And as you relax, let your attention shift from your usual outer world to what we can call your inner world ... the world inside that only you can see, hear, smell, and feel ... the world where your memories, your dreams, your feelings, your plans all reside ... a world that you can learn to connect with ... that can help you in many ways on your journey ... .
And imagine that you find inside a very special place ... a very beautiful place where you feel comfortable and relaxed, yet very aware ... this may be a place that you have actually visited at some time in your life ... in the outer world or even in this inner world ... or it may be a place that you've seen somewhere ... or it may be a brand-new place that you haven't visited before ... and none of that matters as long as it is a very beautiful place, a place that invites you and feels good to be in ... a place that feels safe and healing for you ... .
And let yourself take some time to explore this place ... and notice what you imagine seeing there ... all the things you see ... and how you see them ... don't worry at all about how you imagine this place as long as it is beautiful to you and feels safe and healing ... and notice if there are any sounds you imagine hearing ... or if it is simply very quiet in your healing place ... notice if there is a fragrance or aroma that you imagine there or a special quality of the air ... there may or may not be, and it's perfectly all right however you imagine this place of healing ... it may change over time as you explore it, or it may stay the same ... it doesn't matter at this point ... just let yourself explore a little more ... .
Can you tell what time of day it is? ... or what time of year it is? ... and what the temperature is like? ... how you are dressed? ... take some time to find a place where you feel safeand let yourself get comfortable there ... and just notice how it feels to imagine yourself there ... and if your mind wanders from time to time, just take another deep breath or two and gently return your attention to this beautiful and healing place ... just for now ... without feeling the need to go anywhere else right now ... or do anything else ... just for now ... .
And allow yourself to become aware of anything here that feels healing to you ... it may be the beauty ... it may be the sense of peacefulness ... it may be the temperature, or the fragrance, or a combination of all the qualities that are here ... perhaps you have a sense of what's sacred to you and what supports you in your life ... it doesn't matter what you find healing here ... or whether you can even identify it specifically ... but let yourself experience whatever healing is there for you ... and simply relax there ... and know that while you relax, your body's natural healing systems can operate at their highest efficiency ... without distraction ... and without needing to be told what to do ... .
The same built-in abilities to heal wounds, to repair injuries, to eradicate infections, and to destroy cancer cells that have been with you all your life can now function at full capacity ... without any diversion of your precious energy ... so while you relax, your body can take advantage of the time to fuel its ability to heal ... as your muscles relax, your blood flows in all the right places ... bringing your immune defenders to every place they are needed ... and allowing them to efficiently and specifically target any cells that no longer belong to the healthy you ... engulfing them and removing them ... to be eliminated whenever you release what's no longer healthy for you ... with your out breath ... with your stool and urine ... even with your sweat ... and energizing yourself with fresh air and oxygen with every in breath ... and with nutritious and healthy food ... and with thoughts that bring you strength, courage, and even joy ... .
And now let yourself become aware of the strength and power that you have within you ... the strength that has seen you through all your life's other challenges ... and the power of the energy that gave you life in the first place ... that flows through you ... and that sustains your life ... and become aware of where you feel that most strongly in your body ... and allow it to become even stronger if you like ... a source of strength and power that you can draw from ... and all you need to do is become aware of it and open yourself to feeling it ... .
And as you welcome that feeling flowing through you, invite an image to form that represents that strength and power ... and just let an image come to mind ... take some time to observe the image that comes and notice how it represents and carries these qualitites of strength and courage ... and perhaps a short phrase comes to mind that reminds you of this power ... and whenever you want or need to reconnect with this strength and power, simply breathe deeply, relax, and think of this image and phrase ... feel the strength within you and allow it to work for you ... and let that be a good feeling ... .
And taking all the time you need ... .
(Pause for 30 seconds)
And now ... when you are ready to return your attention to the outer world ... silently express any appreciation you might have for having a special healing place within you ... and for the healing capabilities that have been built into you by nature ... and for feeling the strength and power you have within you ... and for being able to use your imagination in this way ... and when you are ready, allow all the images to fade and go back within ... knowing that healing continues to happen within you at all times ... and gently bring your attention back to the room around you and the current time and place ... and bring back with you anything that seems important or interesting to bringback, including any feelings of comfort, relaxation, or healing ... and when you are all the way back, gently stretch and open your eyes ... .
And take a few minutes to write or draw about your experience.Debriefing Your ExperienceIt's helpful to write or draw for a while after any imagery process. It helps you to recall and organize what you learn and experience, and makes the images available for review. As you periodically review your imagery and healing experiences, you will find that while they are imaginary, they also express an inner reality that is connected, coherent, and meaningful.Take some time to write or draw whatever you noticed about your recent imagery experience. Don't worry about your artistic ability--this is just for you. Then write responses to the questions below and notice if answering them brings anything more to light.How do you feel after doing this process?Do you feel any different than you did before doing it?What seemed important or interesting to you about this experience?Do you feel you learned anything from this experience? If so, what?What other thoughts or questions do you have about this experience?Creating a Healing JournalAlthough you can write or draw in any form about your imagery, I strongly recommend that you start a journal or diary of your healing experiences. You can call it your Healing Journal, or give it a title that'smeaningful to you. Put anything in it that informs you, inspires you, or reminds you about healing--whether it comes from your imagery or from outside sources. Make it a sacred record that you can keep private or share with others, as feels right to you.You can organize such a journal in many ways. You may want to make it chronological and record each day's insights, experiences, and feelings, or create sections for information about treatments, meaningful conversations, consultations, questions for your doctors and healers, questions for your inner healers, dreams that you relate to your healing journey, meditations, and, of course, your imagery. You can add quotations that move or inspire you to this journal, and photographs, articles, messages from friends, or anything that reminds you of your healing journey.Create a journal that is attractive to you and that feels special and valuable. Conscious healing involves attention, concentration, dedication, and honesty. It's good to have a place to collect and express your innermost thoughts, feelings, insights, and questions, so make your Healing Journal an aesthetically special place in which to do this.You may want to dedicate the journal in your own way, to consecrate it for yourself and define what goes in it. Reorganize it anytime you like--like your imagery and your life, it is uniquely yours.Use the imagery process you have learned to relax, to go to your deep place of healing, and to build your strength until you feel ready to go on to the next imagery process. Reserve at least one or preferably two times a day when you will take about half an hour to practice your deep relaxation and healing imagery. Most studies that show the physiologic benefits of imagery cite a twice-a-day routine, although in a later chapter we'll customize that for you.As you read on through this book, you will learn many other ways to use imagery to help yourself. The next chapter will focus on the tasks you face as a person newly diagnosed with cancer, help you identify your personal healing goals, and teach you another way to focus on your healing.Summery Newly diagnosed people with cancer usually experience shock, numbness, and disbelief to some extent, and this is natural. After this, or accompanying this, comes a more personal reaction, generally based on how you handle a crisis or big change. Research indicates that there are skills and attitudes that are helpful for people with cancer, and that these skills can be learned and new attitudes considered. Managing fear and other strong emotions is often an important challenge in these early days and learning the guided imagery process in this chapter can help you with that.Copyright © 2003 by Martin L. Rossman
Excerpted from Fighting Cancer From Within by Martin L. Rossman Copyright © 2003 by Martin L. Rossman. Excerpted by permission.
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