Medically speaking, we are living today in the age of inummology. Yet for all its successes, despite its breakthroughs in treatment and diagnosis, there is a growing sense that something terribly vital is missing. We know that the whole man is greater than the sum of his parts, and there is a feeling that in treating him only as a condition, as a heart attack or a kidney infection, doctors have substituted the technology of medicine for, to use an almost forgotten term, its art.
It has been known for decades that mice, after being in nothing more than a stressful environment, when placed in a tub of water will give up swimming and drown well before any unstressed mouse, and that rats crowded together will mysteriously absorb their fetuses rather than give birth. What about the patient who wants to die, or is convinced he is going to die, and does die in spite of medical efforts that have regularly saved others with exactly the same physical condition?
Medicine might be able to ignore this other side of things, but you and I can’t, because we know, even if our surgeons and internists don’t, that we are connected with our bodies, that the catch in our breath when we are startled, the tension in our guts when we’re worried, the exhaustion we feel from our anxiety, are as much a part of our illnesses as are the bacteria and viruses which attack us and can, in fact, be just as debilitating, just as deadly.
Physicians have always attempted to control diseases by conquering them from the outside. But there are today, as there have always been in every generation, those few doctors who see that what has been accepted and what is practiced is no longer enough, that new theories must be proposed and new actions taken. They believe in the bending of our own minds to the task of our own personal survival.
At a southwestern medical center, a specialist in the treatment of cancer, himself a victim of ulcer disease, came to sense that the fault might be his rather than his stomach’s. He wondered, too, about other diseases and, in the early 1970s, he started on a daring experiment.
Today, he .continues to treat his cancer patients with the conventional radiotherapy, cobalt machines and anti-metabolic drugs. But he also tells them what their antibodies are, what they look like, where they are made. He tells them about their cancers, about how the antibodies are molded to couple with the antigens on the surface of their tumor cells. He tells them about their white cells, their T and B lymphocytes, and how in their particular case their immune system, despite all its efforts, has been beaten back and then overwhelmed by their cancer cells.
When they understand their disease and the avenues over which their cure could come, the physician begins to teach them to meditate — not on spiritual concerns, or on their wish for comfort, but on themselves. He has them visualize the wildly growing cancer cells within their otherwise healthy bodies, and then he has them do something that had never been done in medicine before he has them meditate on the battle between themselves and their disease. He tells them to turn inward, to think of their antibodies, to try consciously to will them toward their tumors, to make their killer lymphocytes take up a more vigorous attack.
Very few physicians are really comfortable with what this doctor is doing; but since his cases are so hopeless, since they know so little can be done anyway, and since his efforts do include the normally accepted medical treatments for cancer patients, he is left alone.
There are other researchers out at the borders of medical thought trying to do similar things, trying against much resistance and the usual age-old prejudices to close the last great gap in medicine, the distance that has grown between our diseases and ourselves. Because of their experiments, the idea of the conscious control of our immune system does not seem so far-fetched anymore. To use our minds to will our white cells into a more efficient attack against our infections, to stop transplant rejections voluntarily, does not seem so bizarre a notion.
There are a growing number of facts available that show plainly that we are as much a part of our own diseases as we are of our health, that we should be able to and indeed can help ourselves. The task of the physician today is what it has always been, to help the body do what it has learned so well to do on its own during its unending struggle for survival to heal itself. For it is the body, not medicine, that is the hero.
Reprinted from the book The Body is the Hero