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Posted: September 03, 2004

Spiritual Caregiving

Killing Cancer with Kindness -- Does it Work?

Martin L. Rossman, a physician and acupuncturist in Mill Valley, California, struggled to come up with of a title for his book to help people with cancer. He observed that most of his patients battled their disease. Yet he wondered whether combat metaphors were really the most effective and supportive way to cope with ? and recover from ? a life-threatening illness.

Might there be a way to harmonize the concept of fighting for one's life with models of healing that "involve loving the cells back into normality ? learning the lessons that cancer may bring, and allowing them to dissolve or normalize in white or golden light or through the ministrations of a spiritual force?"

While he eventually settled on the title Fighting Cancer from Within, these questions led him to solicit opinions from leading mind-body medicine and cancer experts on the subject. They respond in a recent issue of Advances in Mind-Body Medicine.

"Healing is a struggle," says Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona, a Cherokee Lakota who draws from Native American healing traditions as well as mainstream Western medicine. He likens the experience of illness "to being kidnapped by the enemy and taken to their homeland. Once we arrive, we begin a struggle to escape and return to the land of health, a land where we had previously, effortlessly dwelled."

He adds that in response to this assault, "We must externalize the enemy ? the illness. We must cast it out of ourselves and create a dialogue in which we gain the upper hand and force it to transform into healthy cells, or to depart from our midst."

"At times, fighting is the proper choice if one wants to survive," says Dr. Bernie Siegel, a best-selling author, former cancer surgeon, and founder of Exceptional Cancer Patients (EcaP). In his work with patients, "I try to get people to reclaim their lives, to live, rather than try to avoid dying."

For example, Siegal may ask a patient to come up with a role model and then act like the person they would like to become. "We rehearse and practice,? he says. ?It is not a fight, but rather an exploration of one's feelings, as well as paying attention to the heart's wisdom rather than just the head."

Dr. Leo L. Stolbach, an oncologist and co-founder of the Mind/Body Program for Cancer Patients at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, says the question of whether a fighting spirit helps cancer patients survive has been argued since the late 1970s, when Dr. Steven Greer and colleagues at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London reported that women with breast cancer who exhibited a "fighting spirit" survived significantly longer than those who responded to their illness with "stoic acceptance" or "helplessness/hopelessness." Stolbach now sees the attitudes of cancer patients as a continuum, from fighting spirit to hopelessness.

Dr. Lydia R. Temoshok, who coined the term "Type C Copers," looks for an "incongruence," or disconnect, between a patient's inner experience and outward behavior. She says that the cancer-prone Type C's, though highly stressed, put on a happy face, suppressing their feelings and failing to express their needs.

Research by Temoshok and others has linked the Type C personality to progression of melanoma and HIV. Temoshok suggests that bringing the mind and body into homeostasis, or balance, may lead to more positive health outcomes.

To achieve this balance, it may be effective to involve patients in personal transformation, suggests Alastair J. Cunningham, Ph.D., who has developed and directed The Healing Journey, a program for cancer patients in Toronto. A cancer survivor himself, Cunningham, with his colleagues at the Ontario Cancer Institute and the University of Toronto, has been studying the role of attitude in the survival of 22 people with medically incurable metastatic cancer. Cunningham 's research team recently discovered that those who survived longest reported "a greater sense of autonomy: that is, freedom to live their lives as they wish, without being constrained by old, often imaginary, obligations" ? a quality shared by other "remarkable survivors."

Ellen Fein, a social worker and "cancer coach" who is living with cancer herself, echoes this approach, which "starts from a place of establishing an intention of personal well-being. For me, that means making a commitment to being present with myself and with what I feel, think, and experience every day. This is not just about remission, cure, or disease status. It is about how I respond to what is in front of me at any moment. Implicit is the notion that I can be fully alive and experience the rich texture of my existence, whether contemplating treatment choices, undergoing difficult or painful treatment, or living with the possibility of death."

"Clearly, many patients respond to the aggressive, violent, search-and-destroy imagery of Western medicine, while others relate to the gift of the disease and derive meaning and strength from it," writes Dr. Robert J. Abramson, D.D.S., a physician trained in Chinese classical Five Element Acupuncture. "Western medicine and culture see events as good or bad, black or white, win or lose. Eastern medicine and culture see events as a balance between these extremes, as an ever-changing dance of yin-yang, where one pole does not and cannot exist without the other."

Temoshok also looks to the East, to the 2,000-year-old book The Art of War , by the Chinese warrior and philosopher Sun Tzu . According to Sun, those who are victorious in battle know when to fight and when not to, as well as how many troops to deploy in a given battle. They are well prepared, and have good resources, skills, flexible strategies, and a single-minded (congruent) approach.

These attributes, Temoshok argues, are the same ones needed to effectively face a life-threatening illness. But beyond "fighting for health," Temoshok asks what might be the ultimate question: "Can we also help our patients develop the coping skills and congruence of mind and body to stay healthy and not develop cancer or other diseases to be fought in the first place?"


Sheldon Lewis is editor of Advances in Mind-Body Medicine.

This article originally appeared in Spirituality & Health magazine, For subscriptions call 1-800-876-8202 or see Editor Stephen Kiesling and his staff contribute weekly columns, features and articles published every Friday as "Spiritual Caregiving" at Contact staff directly via email at

© 2004 Pederson Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Commercial use, redistribution or other forms of reuse of this information is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Pederson Publishing.

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