Exceptional physical healing refers to any condition that surpasses what is expected and predicted by medical statistics. Cancer patients who have achieved “spontaneous remissions” have often been thought of as flukes of nature or mysteries to medical science. In pursuing the study of exceptional physical recovery, my colleagues and I have noticed that people who outlive their prognoses and completely recover are far more common that previously believed or reported in medical journals. If asked, those patients will tell you that their “spontaneous remission” was anything but spontaneous and the result of a lot of hard work and determination.
There are certain features – behavioral, psychological, interpersonal and lifestyle – that may be observed in persons who have beaten the odds and achieved extraordinary recovery. The specifics may vary somewhat for each individual, and not all characteristics are necessarily present in everyone who experiences exceptional healing, but several patterns do tend to be associated with exceptional physical recovery.
*Acceptance of the Diagnosis
A healthy emotional response to diagnoses of serious illness may include crying, anger, despair, hopelessness, etc. Facing the awful truth and entering the depths of one’s being can awaken and mobilize inner resources that can then be available to assist in the healing process.
*Rejection of the Prognosis
After accepting the fact that one has cancer, one can reject the limitations of the prognosis offered. A strong sense of determination, belief and hope focuses energy towards the goal of healing.
*Active Participation and Initiative
This means choosing treatment according to one’s own wishes, understanding and beliefs. The chosen option may involve disagreeing with one’s doctor and/or loved ones, but if one has an intuitive sense of what is right for oneself, one must then persevere with that choice.
*Use of Illness for Learning and Growth
The Chinese word for crisis is “dangerous opportunity.” When we find ourselves in a challenging and threatening situation, we can use the crisis as an opportunity to get in touch with self, others and meaning in life. We can often discover hidden meanings in the disease and decipher messages in its symptoms, using them to enhance health and quality of life.
*Transformation in Interpersonal Relationships
Many of us have a tendency to protect loved ones from pain, fear and other negative emotions, but containing our feelings, putting up a front, and isolating ourselves consumes energy and retards the healing process. Open, honest communication and intimacy release energy for healing. Exceptional patients often rebalance relationships, learning to receive instead of being overly giving and making themselves a priority instead of always putting others first.
*Changes in Lifestyle
Exceptional patients are willing to alter lifelong patterns. New patterns may include a healthful diet, meditation, relaxation, exercise, yoga, massage, etc. They may also involve a change in context, e.g. career, living situation, relationship or any other source of stress. When priorities in life are reordered, some persons may choose to spend more time with loved ones, while for many this means giving up doing what others expect in favor of following their own dream.
Exceptional recoveries usually include some kind of inner work that may comprise dealing with previously unresolved loss, completing griefwork, reconciling long-standing conflicts, forgiveness (which helps the forgiver more than the forgiven), and extending to oneself unconditional love.
Willingness to face oneself, persevere and make major life changes all require courage.
*Significant Healing Relationship
People who recover from life-threatening illnesses report being supported by someone who understood them, stood by them, recognized their true self, and acted as a source of unconditional love. The significant other could be a doctor, therapist, friend, relative or spouse.
*Expression of Emotions
Research has clearly demonstrated that withholding emotions contributes to illness and retards the healing process, while the appropriate expression of emotion speeds up the healing process. This includes positive and negative emotions such as love, anger, grief, joy, sadness, hostility and playfulness.
*Joie de Vivre
Exceptional healing is facilitated by the ability to experience pleasure in life through play, music, laughter, creativity, travel or other recreational activity.
*Reason to Live
Above all, extraordinary recovery seems to be predicated on finding meaning and purpose in life. Without these, permanent recovery appears extremely unlikely. A sense of personal worth, short or long-term goals, and a feeling of fulfillment help to internalize and actualize the concept that life is worth living.
Dr. Perlman is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in the Philadelphia area.