When faced with a diagnosis of life-threatening illness our reaction is more important than the diagnosis. The range of responses is infinite: denial, fear, anger, assertiveness, determination are some typical patterns. Most people fall into a learned response, using strategies they have employed successfully (or not) in the past. Some turn to books, others to friends; some look for healers, others accept their fate; some withdraw into their shells, others need to talk and talk.
As they come to terms with their disease, cancer survivors often display common patterns of emotions, beliefs and behaviours. Although we are grouped for medical treatment, we must take an individual approach to restoring health. People report feeling lonely as they come to terms with their mortality, and there is a sense of separateness from our family, friends and medical team. The world around us is full of people living ‘carefree’ lives as we come to terms with the limits of our own. Even if we subsequently live into old age, this is the time we face our eventual mortality with a grim knowledge that we die alone, not as a group. We experience visceral, paralysing fear. It’s not unusual to feel angry.
We are never more likely to fall into unconscious patterns of behaviour than when we sense danger. If that peril is a result of disease then it’s likely you already have some destructive behaviour patterns that are not working in harmony with your body. It’s easy to think our body has let us down when we are diagnosed with cancer. In fact it’s more likely that we have let our body down, pushing it beyond its natural limits. While our destructive, unhealthy habits are sometimes subconscious, it’s rare that we don’t also have semi-subconscious voices telling us we are risking our wellbeing. Those voices are important. We need to tune in.
Our inner voices are based on earlier experiences in our lives. We may have grown up thinking that we’re clever – or thick. We may believe we’re good at coping in a crisis – or hopeless. Maybe we were raised to believe that life is tough and money scarce so we have to work, work, work. Perhaps we were sickly children and learned to believe that it’s difficult for us to be healthy. The set of beliefs we have about ourselves, our skills, our constitution, our worthiness, our success will determine the way we approach our challenge at a fundamental, often unconscious, level. It’s critical that we tune in to what’s happening there. We need to identify the urges coming to the surface, spend some listening to our internal instructions, analysing and evaluating the motivations, to see whether they are coming from a place of love or fear; nurturing us, or goading us.
As well as voices urging us to find a healing solution, it’s normal to have unhelpful voices or urges, disguised as wisdom or nurturing. For example, we may have voices that urge us to leave no stone unturned in our race for survival, or whispers of ‘don’t make a fuss’. We may also have ‘told you so’ voices that taunt us when we’re down, or reinforce the fact that we were never going to amount to much anyway. Sometimes they’re referred to as drivers: be perfect; hurry up; try hard; be strong; please others. These are all attitudes of mind that can damage our ability to see our situation objectively and respond appropriately. One of the most difficult things in the world is to reflect on your own existence and work out what to do when it’s under siege. We need to shine a light on destructive and constructive patterns of behaviour. We need to unearth our ‘script’ and re-write the parts that we don’t like.
Such is the fear of degenerative illness in our 21st century culture that there is intense focus on the ways and means of creating wellbeing. Most of us are inured to the idea that it’s something we have to consciously and constantly work at. Many of us feel as though we’ve failed when things go wrong, we feel as though we should, or could, be responsible. Surrounded by offers of highly sophisticated, quasi-scientific therapies, we are probably more educated about the way our bodies work at any time in history, and certainly more gullible. It’s tempting to believe that we know all there is to know about the workings of the cell, but just a minute spent reflecting on how unpredictable the medical approach to cancer is helps us see that there is still vastly more unknown than known. We may be able to explain how DNA damage can lead to the creation of mutant cells that grow into unstoppable tumours, we can even explain the mechanisms of abnormal growth, but even with this knowledge we can’t yet reliably influence the abnormal growth. Neither can we explain exactly what happens when cancer does, somehow, miraculously disappear. It’s a mystery, but it does happen.
The fact that it does leaves the field wide open for therapists of all sorts of persuasions to offer help. A climate is created where we believe we can control disease outcomes, even down to a cellular level, if only we can find the magical missing element. The weight of that responsibility is exhausting.
Our understanding of some of the characteristics and behaviours of cancer makes it tempting to believe that we can directly influence them. But can we? We know that sulforaphane in broccoli can influence cancer cells and DNA in various ways but we cannot ensure that when we eat broccoli it’s used to that effect. We can show that tryptophan is necessary for the manufacture of serotonin but we cannot force the body to make serotonin by eating tryptophan.
Taken to extremes – as it often is – our search for the missing piece of the jigsaw, combined with our pursuit of ‘perfect’ physical balance can become the central preoccupation of our life, taking all our passion and energy until, suddenly, the quest to stay alive becomes our life. And there are some very deep philosophical questions that we can debate there.
The intellectual pursuit of answers to reverse the disease can and does soak up a lot of time and energy. The underlying fear driving the search changes the molecular environment in the body, and not in a good way. The stress of spending money that is normally more limited, and the time spent travelling to and acquainting ourselves with therapists takes its toll. The consequences of getting it wrong weigh very heavily and there is a danger that bad news brings despair when we feel it’s all down to us. When this need for an answer becomes all-consuming I believe we move to a point where our brain power is working against us rather than with us. We think we’re moving towards health but we may, inadvertently, be tipping the scales slightly in the other direction.
I don’t believe we can overstate the importance of maintaining our healing equilibrium. Anything you do that makes you feel stressed and exhausted, anything that makes you feel like giving up, anything that makes you feel vulnerable and lonely is detrimental to health and to the thrive and survive message from your brain to your cells. When we are tired or stressed fears become bigger. You might be better off lying in the bath with a glass of wine!
As well as an emotion, fear is a biochemical reaction. We know that the immune system is inhibited by the biochemical environment created during stress, anger and fear. We also know, thanks to Candace Pert and subsequent researchers, that immunity is improved when we experience happiness, gratitude, and joy. Babies who are not cuddled do not thrive: love and affection are literally life-promoting.
If we know that being in ‘happy balance’ has a powerful positive effect on the immune system then doing anything that detracts from that must surely class as harmful, if only a little.
I believe, though I cannot prove, that one of the most important messages we can give our body is a sense of ‘more please’. Every time we are in a situation that causes deep enjoyment and contentment, and a desire to live long and prosper, our body and our cells get a biochemical message to thrive and survive. I believe that these messages are the critical bridge to persuade the body to use the sulforaphane for healing and the tryptophan for happiness.
We need a positive stimulus to create healing: happiness, sleep, nurturing, hugs, purpose, excitement, motivation. Without it we can put the raw materials into the body ad nauseum (sometimes quite literally) but they will not get the right set of health-building instructions from the brain to do the right job.
If you want to thrive and survive you need to stop tinkering under the bonnet and start building a live that you love living. You need to allow the lower brain do its job by stopping the interference of the higher brain. You really don’t need to tell your cells what to do, they are designed to respond to what you are doing. But if you must interfere, you must make sure it’s with positive messages. You need to spend as long as possible in every day doing what you love. You need to spend as much time as possible loving and being loved. You need to love yourself, nurture yourself and allow yourself the simple pleasure of existing. If you have a faith, rest in it. Rest. Be at peace. All is well. That is the quickest route to the biochemistry that all the healers in your life are trying to create. It is a miracle.
Go and have fun!
If you take an overly intellectual approach to creating your healing you may just be shooting yourself in the foot. If you consult so many therapists that your life is one long round of ‘health-related’ activities (by deliberate and direct contrast with life-enhancing activities) you may just be blocking those signals and the positive effect of them on your cells. Not to mention that the intensely selfish focus of these activities is also denying you the joy and fellowship of simply being yourself with other human beings, another deeply healing state.
I believe that one of the surest routes to encouraging the body to heal is to create the conditions where we are used to our highest purpose. In that state we can feel a transcendent peace and joy that can only be beneficial to the body. I believe it is a more powerful healing solution than anything else on earth.
Sure, taking your eye off the ball is a risk. But it worked for me. And, honestly, how much more of your life do you want to spend totally and utterly obsessed with maintaining your own health?
If your idea of the highest purpose of human life is to stand around juicing wheatgrass then be my guest. But I’m guessing there are things you believe are more important on a personal, physical, global and spiritual scale.
Go and do those, and let your body take care of itself.
And if you don’t know what those things would be, come and have a chat.