Dr. Kelly Turner lost a young friend and an uncle to cancer early in life, which eventually prompted her to become a psychotherapist and researcher specializing in integrative oncology. She wanted to focus on cases of spontaneous remission.[i] She quickly discovered there were more unexplained remissions than at first she imagined were possible.
She also discovered that most physicians were unwilling to discuss or even be reminded of unexplained remissions. One reason for this resistance was the alleged fear of arousing “false hope” in patients they thought were doomed. On the other hand, anomalistic healings–like anomalies in other branches of science–might contain clues to new insights and even new healing paradigms.
Turner therefore spent about ten years gathering case histories of what she called “radical remission”–remissions due not to conventional treatment but unconventional interventions. Her book so titled is based on about a thousand case histories from medical records and others she investigated; and she traveled all over the world from China to Zimbabwe, interviewing fifty non-Western alternative healers about their methods of treating cancer.
Radical Remission is above all a practical book, addressed to cancer patients, their families, and to anyone interested in optimizing their health. It makes no claims that promote “false hope” and doesn’t discourage the use of Western medicine. It does propose that certain data suggest a radically modified healing paradigm for cancer is a real possibility. The author’s compassionate enthusiasm for a wider vision of what constitutes the way to health and well-being is evident throughout.
Turner found about seventy-five factors that were cited as causally related to cases of radical remission. From these she selected nine as the most frequently mentioned by survivors: “Radically changing your diet, taking control of your health, following your intuition, using herbs and supplements, releasing suppressed emotions, increasing positive emotions, embracing social support, deepening your spiritual connection, and having strong reasons for living” (p.8).
The nine factors are each discussed in a chapter, and each chapter covers “action steps,” specific things one can do to implement the factor in question. Each chapter reviews scientific studies that support the beneficial claims of the healing item in question; and each chapter focuses in detail on a particular case history of radical remission.
Turner notes that seven of the nine helpful variables are mental. The two physical variables, radical change in diet and the use of herbs and supplements, also presuppose mental input in the form of judgments one has to make and the exercise of one’s voluntary skills to stick with the new diet and the sometimes exotic use of herbs and supplements.
In fact, the two physical, as well as the seven mental, remission factors not only call for personal choice and active intention, they have a social and political dimension. For the challenge to survivors in a very real sense is to change their worldview and their life-style; in practical detail, it is to effect a personal revolution. For example, to radically change one’s diet – e.g., dropping sweets, meat, dairy, refined foods – one has to resist corporate advertising media that are primarily driven by the profit motive and not by concern for public health. One way to change one’s diet is to fast; this of course is an offense to the church of consumerism. And yet, when animals get sick they don’t rush to the pharmacy; they stop eating and consume nothing.
The call for personal revolution is evident with the seven other cancer-transcending candidates unearthed by Turner’s research. For example, what could be more revolutionary than to shift from perceiving yourself as a passive victim to re-conceiving yourself as the active custodian of your health and illness? (Passivity shouldn't be confused with receptivity, which is a special form of activity.)
Passivity is conducive to depression, which acts adversely on the immune system. The sense of helplessness, the feeling that nothing can be done, also weakens the immune function. (Turner cites various studies supporting these claims.) Add to this helpless stance fear, anxiety, and stress: also agents that enfeeble the natural mechanisms of our bodies to deal with endogenous foes.
To rise to the challenge of self-healing is to mobilize the latent immune powers we naturally possess. The worst thing is to wallow in passivity and yield to the ugly sprite of helplessness. The challenge is to seize the reins of choice and change. When we say yes or no, when we aim and act, exercise our minds and direct our bodies, we are, I believe, using suggestion, pricking the immune system into performing its genetic duty.
Kelly Turner questions the model of cancer as an invader that we must kill with drugs, radiation, and surgery, requiring that we accept the collateral damage of pain, nausea, hair loss, sexual dysfunction, and the like. Turner recommends a different model in which the emphasis is on restoring the compromised immune system. Instead of reaching for our weapons to fight what is perceived as the other, the enemy, the terror, we can deploy our skills and intelligence to detoxify the body, a way to re-vitalize the immune system.
The suggestions the author presents are built around this model: radical activation of the “wisdom” and healing powers of our bodies. Being existentially active not passive is one way of doing it, but other ways are possible. For example, the data shows that survivors follow their intuitions. The prospect of death concentrates the mind and is apt to tear open one’s intuitive potential. Turner provides testimony showing how unpredictable and strange the logic of many intuitive breakthroughs can be. Many ways, the author stresses, are possible for our healing self to wield its magic. When our backs are up against a wall, we must find the ability to imagine the impossible.
According to the empirical data, emotions are key to producing radical remissions. So a revolution in emotional life is called for. First, one must be released from those vitriolic emotions we try to suppress but that stick in the craw and waste us: fear, guilt, shame, envy, hatred, regret, resentment, and all the rest; clung to they can wreak havoc on the immune response. “I was angry with my friend, I told my wrath; my wrath did end; I was angry with my foe, I told it not; my wrath did grow.” Blake’s poem seems a parable of cancer. Vent, express, and slough off the poisonous clots of consciousness--but follow up with building positive emotions.
Turner suggests we have to consciously cultivate the positive emotions in whatever way we can: yes, joy, love, bliss – don’t be shy, defy logic and rational expectation, and go for it! Be a Bacchanalian in your will to touch the bliss and scale the heights. And moreover, she recommends, in the spirit of Norman Cousins, take full advantage of the healing power of laughter, of levity, good humor, the droll, and of course, the absurd.
The important point, as far as I can see, is that no matter how pressing the circumstances, it’s always possible to orient your consciousness in the direction you choose. In case this sounds hyper-individualistic, another key factor that kept cropping up in accounts of people who beat the odds was a willingness to embrace social support. It is a willingness that often bears unexpected fruit. Look at the studies: there is data showing that people socially and communally in touch with others live longer than folks who are cut off and emotionally starved. The author noticed during her research in New Zealand how “closely-bonded” the Maori were in “their tight-knit communities”, contrasting what she saw with America where people live in “fenced-off houses” and neighbors don’t know each other (p.199).
Are there criteria of healing communities? In taking responsibility for our health, we should think about the toxic or therapeutic traits of the communities we inhabit: family, neighborhood, workplace, city, landscape – a topic to research. One wonders whether our rapidly evolving technologies of communication are creating life-enhancing communities or disease prone syndromes. I suspect the answer is both.
There are two more factors in radical cancer survival. The first calls for a willed attempt to connect with a higher force, a spiritual energy. Call it a quantum leap into the unseen dimension of existence. It doesn’t matter how the connection is made, as long as the healing potential is stirred to action. It has to be based on real experience, not just hopeful inclination or compliant fantasy. One way is through meditation, which, Turner reports, makes for peaceful sleep, thus refreshing the immune system. Part of meditation is the effort to stop the mind, which somehow awakens the healing powers of the body. Turner associates unconditional love with the highest form of spiritual energy, a potent if mysterious ally in dismantling cellular pathology.
But how do you manage unconditional love during a mortal crisis? Experience often confounds us; terrible situations sometimes elicit transcendent experience. We also have the trope of mysticism that couples the idea of ego death with influxes of higher consciousness. All we can say for sure: survivors report these heightened states along with their remissions.
And then there’s the politics of transcendence. The ordinary world is not set up to facilitate healing states of consciousness. Violence and oppression, gross and subtle, possess much of planetary life—not friendly to ecstatic release or the healing magic of love.
Nevertheless, revolt against the Zeitgeist remains an option. The possibility of personal spiritual revolution exists for everybody. Much evidence shows that the “impossible” happens; so learn to expect that it will happen.
One final ingredient, the ninth factor, on Kelly Turner’s list, crucial among creative cancer survivors. They had to have strong reasons for living. There’s a difference between not wanting to die and wanting passionately to live for something. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it fires up the soul. One of Turner’s most robust survivors was a grandma determined to live so she could take care of her two grandchildren.
But how does all this work? Physicist Helmut Schmidt spoke of “goal-oriented thinking” in successful PK experimentation. One aims solely for the desired outcome; one never dwells on the how but on the what, the great aim, the great goal. If somebody in a PK experiment can influence events at the quantum level of reality by virtue of sheer intention, why couldn’t the same person be able to muster what it takes to heal one’s body? Research shows that survivors find their callings, become resolute and impassioned about living for some specific reason. They’re energized by a focused sense of purpose, and their lives are infused with healing vitality. The infusion may be slow and halting or quite rapid.
This ninth factor is perhaps the most powerful, but for many not easy to take advantage of. For vast numbers of people—victims of war, poverty, exile, homelessness, discrimination (all kinds) --the goal is just to survive, to make it through the day. Even the well-off among more fortunate societies--victims of metaphysical depression -- often have no life-enhancing passions. The ninth factor may depend on luck. Or else it demands a certain skillful imagination to believe in or invent robust reasons for living.
Nowadays when the cost of illness can destroy you economically, learning to exploit our inborn healing potential seems an idea whose time has come. The secret should be revealed. The greatest “health care system” is our own life, how we use it and what we do with it. The beauty is that the system is free, but only if we learn how it works. It’s for us to use in whatever way is best in the improvisation we call our lives.
No government or insurance company can take it from us. Radical Remission provides an evidence-based manifesto of our self-healing potential. It is grounded in the experiences of people who survived cancer against the odds. We are in debt to the author of this eye-opening book.
[i]See her Radical Remission: Surviving Cancer Against All Odds. An early version of this essay appeared in the peer-reviewed journal, Explore, edited by Dr. Larry Dossey, the author of many important books that supplement and complement Dr. Turner’s.