Bruce Fishkin has cancer lymphoma to be exact. After almost a year of chemotherapy in 1986, doctors told him the treatment was having no effect. The 51-year-old marketing consultant from Redding, CT, got his affairs in order. Then he read a book that changed his life.
“The premise was that your state of mind contributed to the initiation of the disease by lowering your immune system,” he says. “I’m a pretty conventional guy. But something in that book rang true. And I decided if my mental state had contributed to my getting cancer, then maybe my mind could help strengthen my defenses.”
Like thousands of other cancer patients around the country, Fishkin sought out a “wellness” program, hoping to control, if not conquer, his disease. He joined the “E-CAP” (Exceptional Cancer Patient) program in New Haven, run by Dr. Bernie Siegel, author of the best seller Love, Medicine and Miracles, and a surgeon at the Yale-New Haven Medical Center. The E-CAP program includes group counseling, meditation and relaxation exercises, and guided imagery, where patients concentrate on positive mental images such as cells fighting off disease or peaceful landscapes.
“I have patients who are alive and well today who should be dead, according to their pathology reports,” Dr. Siegel says. “I don’t say we have cured their disease. But I do believe you can alter the course of disease by helping your brain to send healing chemical messages to receptive sites around the body.”
A new breed of scientists, called “psychoneuro-immunologists,” is trying to find out if the brain can do that and how.
Among them is Nicholas Hall, biochemistry professor at the George Washington University School of Medicine. “There is solid evidence
that the brain and the immune system do communicate with each other,” says Dr. Hall. “Chemical hormones controlled by the brain have been shown to influence the activity of key cells involved with disease and disease fighting.”
While there’s no definitive proof yet, Dr. Hall says recent studies have shown links between state of mind and our ability to fight illness or pain. Among the findings:
There is a “disease-prone personality.” Researchers at the University of California at Riverside found that people prone to chronic anxiety, tension, pessimism and sadness are also prone to diseases like asthma, peptic ulcers and heart disease.
- People can die of a “broken heart.” A study at Mount Sinai Hospital showed during the first six months after their wives’ death, widowers over age 55 had a 40% higher death rate than other men their age.
- The brain may be able to activate our natural defenses against invading cells that can cause cancer. Cancer patients at the Medical Illness Counseling Center in Chevy Chase, MD, increased the activity of “killer T-Cells”using guided imagery.
- The mind can help block unpleasant sensations. Relaxation exercises coupled with guided imagery helped patients at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center reduce the nausea caused by chemotherapy and helped reduce pain in other cancer patients. For children with cancer, behavior therapy in the form of video games at Sloan-Kettering has been shown to reduce nausea by distracting them from thinking about the unpleasant effects of chemotherapy.
- Simply learning to relax may make you healthier. In a study at Ohio State University, retirees who performed relaxation exercises increased killer cell activity, boosting their immune systems.
“We have proven that eliciting the ‘relaxation response’ in the body reduces blood pressure, heart rate and rate of breathing,” says Dr. Herbert Benson, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and chief of behavioral medicine at the New England Deaconess Hospital. “There’s nothing mysterious about it. You simply close your eyes, keep repeating a word or phrase, shut out everyday thoughts and your body automatically relaxes. The same thing happens during prayer or hypnosis.”
The mind may be able to trigger other physical responses in the body, says Dr. Benson, author of Your Maximum Mind. He cites Buddhist monks in the Himalayas, who were able to generate enough body heat to meditate in sub-zero temperatures without shivering, frost bite or showing any signs of cold. He believes they did it by using the power of the mind.
Dr. Benson believes that same power could be tapped by sick people wanting to be well and healthy people wanting to stay that way.
What implication could this have in the AIDS war? “It’s unlikely that once a person has AIDS, the relatively subtle techniques of guided imagery could influence the severely damaged immune system,” Dr. Benson warns. “But there could be some application in those who merely test positive for the virus. That should be studied.”
Meanwhile, wellness groups continue to win supporters. In addition to Dr. Siegel’s E-CAP program is The Wellness Community in Santa Monica, CA, a non-profit group aimed at helping cancer patients fight the disease. One of its most famous participants was comedian Gilda Radner, diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
A main feature of the Wellness community and the E-CAP program is group counseling, allowing cancer patients to talk about their fears and experiences, help each other cope and give each other love and hope.
And for now, while scientists try to prove the mind can heal the body this may be the best medicine of all.
Bruce Fishkin agrees. “The biggest benefit of E-CAP, for me, has been getting outside of myself and helping other people,” he says.
Fishkin also sees a psychic healer, but says he has “no illusions about making my cancer disappear.”
“I don’t look for miracles. I don’t look for cures,” he says. “I do look for increased longevity and a better quality of life. I think those are realistic goals if you put your mind to it.”
Reprinted from the Daily News.