Spontaneous Remission

by Patrick Marsolek (10/2014)

The phenomena of spontaneous remission has again found it’s way into the mainstream spotlight with the publication of a couple new books on the topic. Kelly Turner’s Radical Remission and Lissa Rankin’s Mind over Medicine have stirred up more discussion and awareness of the tremendous power of individuals to heal themselves in the face of ‘incurable’ diseases. Not only is it becoming more clear that people can affect change in their bodies, but their beliefs about healing and their intuitions about which treatments to pursue seem to be important factors. Many people who’ve experienced spontaneous remission report that their emotional and psychological health play a role in their healing. These shifts in perspective fly contradict old school medical thinking that for one, the doctor knows what’s best, secondly, that our materialistic medical system’s approach to healing is the most effective, and that a person’s beliefs or feelings about their disease are not significant.

Historically, remission of disease symptoms has been labeled spontaneous when a patient has had no or insufficient allopathic treatment for the disease. In a broader sense, it is spontaneous remission when some one has lived with their disease or cancer for a much longer time than they should have, when they seem to have stabilized and are able to function normally with the disease, or when they have had a sudden or complete remission in the case of a miraculous healing. Spontaneous regression is also a term that is used, though this more specifically refers to the reduction of solid tumors, whereas remission refers to the overall reversal of a disease.

Over the last century there have been a steady flow of case reports of spontaneous remission and regression, with periodic waves of increased public awareness when a book or report was published in the popular press. Cases of spontaneous remission have historically been difficult to study though, since they don’t generally have a easy mechanistic explanation. Many doctors are still threatened by these ‘miraculous’ cures and refused to talk about them, even when one of their own patients has had such an experience.

It is commonly thought that spontaneous remissions occur at a rate between one in 60,000 and one in 100,000. However, since most of the research being done on the phenomenon is through case studies and many cases of healing are never reported, the true answer is that nobody really knows. Some researchers believe the frequency may be ten or twenty times greater than these numbers. Current research has also shown that such radical remissions have occurred in almost every kind of cancer and in almost every other ailment. The largest number of cancer cases have been reported in neuroblastoma, renal cell carcinoma, melanoma, with leukemias and lymphomas having the largest numbers.

In mainstream medicine there is some, limited discussion of what might cause these kinds of remission with a focus on physical factors such as immune mediation, hormonal factors, inhibition of tumors by growth factors, differentiation of the tumor into normal tissues, elimination of carcinogens, angiogenesis and genetic factors. The problem with these ‘causes’ is there is little understanding what would set these physical processes in motion in some patients and not in others. Rarely are psychological, emotional or spiritual factors even mentioned. Wikipedia, whose writers seem staunchly entrenched in the materialistic paradigm, don’t even mention possibly psychological causes.

Yet, fortunately for people suffering from these ‘incurable’ diseases, there is a trend towards acknowledging the pervasive connection between the mind and the body. Most of us have heard stories of someone who, given an incurable prognosis, went home to die, only to walk back into the doctors office some months or years later completely healthy and free of their cancer. It’s clear the doctors in these cases don’t know how these patients did it, since they diagnosed them as incurable. In 1993 the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) published the Spontaneous Remission Bibliography Project. Since then, IONS and others have continued cataloguing more case histories. (See www.RadicalRemission.com) Some doctors and researchers, such as Turner and Rankin, are now delving into the great pool of case studies of people who have had these experiences and are compiling the data regarding what the patients themselves think contributed to their remission. It turns out that how people feel and think about the treatment they’re receiving, their bodies and their illness can make all the difference in their path toward healing or death.

We discussed the placebo effect in issue 108 of Atlantis Rising. Placebo and Nocebo are incredibly powerful even with ‘incurable’ diseases such as cancer. One tragic example of nocebo is a case reported by Dr. Clifton Meodor and his patient Sam Londe. Sam had cancer of the esophagus, which was considered fatal. After Dr. Meador told his patient the news about his death sentence, Sam died in only a few weeks. Yet when the autopsy was performed after his death, the doctors were surprised how little cancer he had in his body, certainly not enough to kill him. Dr. Meador told the Discovery Health Channel in an interview, “He died with cancer, but not from cancer.” It seems he died because he believed he would die.

Lissa Rankin suggests that belief and the power of our thinking plays a tremendous role in the outcome of cancer and other diseases. She suggests that when doctors speak to their patients using phrases like “I’m afraid your cancer is inoperable….”, “Most people with this cancer die within six months”, or “This would be a good time to get your affairs in order,” they are essentially giving a death sentence just as powerful as a voodoo curse to their patients. Part of the power of placebo is that we make ourselves receptive to the suggestions of those we put in authority. As a patient growing up in western medicine we have learned to trust the doctor in the white jacket and we’ve given them the power of forecasting our health. So, when we hear those words, we literally take them to heart. In the case of Sam Londe, that belief can kill us more effectively than the cancer.

In addition to this, these powerful suggestions are often given just after the exploratory surgery or scanning when the patient is still recovering from anesthesia, is in a mild state of shock or trauma and is even more vulnerable and suggestible than they normally would be. In the hypnotherapy community it’s well known that words spoken to people in shock can be very powerful, for better or for worse. In 2002 Judith Prager and Judith Acosta published the book, The Worst Is Over which documents how doctors, nurses and EMT’s can proactively use “verbal first aid” with people in shock to initiate a positive recovery by carefully selecting what words to share with accident victims. These words can literally help a patient stop bleeding and initiate a healing response.

In Mind Over Medicine, Rankin proposes a different model of prognosis where doctors wait to speak to their patients until they’re recovered from their anesthesia and are in the company of loved ones. And only then does she suggest breaking the “good news and the bad news” with phrases like “a percentage of people with exactly this diagnosis survive”, “the body is designed to repair itself when it gets sick” and “we have clear evidence that those who nurture their bodies, minds and spirits while staying hopeful and believing in their ability to get well are more likely to be cured.” She makes it clear that it’s important to tell the patients truthfully what they know about their disease, and at the same time, being very careful not to take away hope or the possibility for healing.

Many progressive doctors are recognizing the power of the mind in healing. She suggests that doctors can and must engage the mind of the patient to bring them back into wholeness, which is the essence of healing. Dr. Bernie Siegel, M.D. reminded us in his book Love, Medicine and Miracles that the validity of the mind-body connection was the accepted norm prior to our era. He said, “In traditional tribal medicine and in the Western practice from its beginning in the work of Hippocrates, the need to operate through the patient’s mind has always been recognized.” Tribal shamanism, for example, pays particular attention to bridging the internal world of the patient to the external world where they live and has its own toolkit of techniques for the generation of a healing state within the patient. Many of the Complementary and Alternative modalities of healing also work within the attitudes and beliefs of patients. Dr. David Spiegel asked in the British Medical Journal, “Is it possible that the alternative medical community has tended historically to understand something important about the experience of illness and the ritual of doctor-patient interactions that the rest of medicine might do well to hear?”

Research on spontaneous remission is showing that the patients also need to radically shift their role in the healing of their cancers. Many who have experience so-called “spontaneous remission” will say that there is nothing spontaneous about it. It is radical, but perhaps could more appropriately be called natural or empowered. The patients took change of their healing process. They enlisted doctors and other alternative healers who were willing to work with their beliefs and support their own healing process, and they didn’t give their authority over to these individuals. There have been thousands of documented reports of patients who, like Sam Londe, received a death sentence, refused to give up and die.

Through her research with these survivors, Dr. Turner compiled nine proactive behaviors that were primary factors in the healing of these cancer survivors. These are; changing diet, taking control of their health, following their own intuition, using herbs and supplements, releasing repressed emotions, increasing positive emotions, embracing social support, deepening spiritual connection, and cultivating strong reasons for living – having a purpose!  The IONS report and Andrew Weil in his 1995 book, Spontaneous Healing, also arrived at lists of similar strategies which also included having strong loving relationships, partnering with physicians and alternative practitioners, and cultivating activities that increased self awareness and reduced stress.

Dr. Turner suggests that it isn’t any one of these strategies that work for everyone, but that each patient must find their way into the areas in their lives that need the most attention for them. For one person it would become a combination of dietary changes and emotional grief work. For another it might be embarking on a life change, developing new community and changing diet. Lissa Rankin describes how she was seeing people who lived very healthy lives, exercising regularly, eating all the right foods in the right amounts, and living in optimal environments, yet they were still coming down with cancer. When she looked more closely, she started to see that for some of them their emotional lives were in shambles. These very healthy people were suffering emotionally, mentally or spiritually; only attending to the physical body didn’t cut it. She discovered two questions that she could ask that would help to get to the heart of their dis-ease; “What do you think might lie at the root of your illness?” and “What does your body need in order to heal?”

She found that when she asked the first question, she got answers like, “I give until I’m depleted”, “I’m miserable in my marriage”,  and “I absolutely hate my job.” Then to the second question she would hear things like, “I have to quit my job”, “I’m so lonely, I need to make more friends,” or “I need to love myself more.” These people didn’t believe that the causes and solutions to their disease were the physical diseases that the doctors were focusing on. People who reported experiencing spontaneous remission often reported that in addition to pursuing allopathic treatments that made sense to them, they also attended to factors like listening to their intuition, cultivating their sense of purpose and even changing jobs.

Fortunately, more and more doctors are starting to pay attention to the rest of the human being, recognizing that health is more than a physical process and must include psychological, spiritual and emotional components. Turner’s research uncovered three core beliefs for people who experienced spontaneous remission. Firstly, that for healing, one had to change the conditions under which the cancer thrives. Instead of seeing the cancer as an object to be removed, it becomes a symptom of a larger system that is out of balance. Secondly, that illness equals blockage and slowness whereas health equals movement. This correlated to the third belief that a body-mind-spirit interaction exists with energy permeating all three levels. Out of these beliefs came strategies that started to value emotions, a persons sense of purpose and the value of their relationships.

Perhaps what’s changed now in terms of the medical establishment, is that there is much more evidence based research that these mind-body-spirit interactions do make a tangible difference in people’s lives. Research in the field of epigenetics has demonstrated how perception and environmental variables can activate or deactivate DNA. There is also research showing how the absence of nurturing and loneliness can physically harm people. There is scientific proof of how powerful placebo and nocebo can be in people with terminal illness. For years drug companies have had a “washout phase” in their randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled drug trials whereby they screened out people who were considered to have “excessive placebo responses”. The power of the mind had to be removed from medicine for the drugs to be ‘proven’ effective enough to heal. Dr. Weil suggests instead that, “..the placebo response as a pure example of healing elicited by the mind; far from being a nuisance, it is, potentially, the greatest therapeutic ally doctors can find in their efforts to mitigate disease…” Perhaps it is time we learn from those who have such “excessive responses”!

Lissa Rankin goes so far as to write a prescription for health, whereby individuals can cultivate a more holistic approach to spontaneous remission. These include; believing you can heal yourself, finding the right support, listening to your body and your intuition, diagnosing the root cause of your illness, writing a prescription for yourself, and surrendering your attachment to the outcomes. Clearly this is not an easy task – changing our core beliefs can be difficult to do. Yet there are concrete ways to address and change deeply, such as doing hypnotherapy or Neuro-linguistic programming. Finding the right support may mean working with doctors within the allopathic system as well as alternative practitioners such as body-workers or psychotherapists to address the emotions stored in the body or detrimental beliefs. Learning to listen to one’s intuition can be scary, yet it can be learned. Diagnosing the root cause of your illness may mean taking a hard look at what needs to change in your life, with the help of others. The sense of empowerment that comes many people who embark on this path has been missing from healthcare for too long.

Lastly, all of the writers and researchers have emphasized that there is an innate healing mechanism in the body within the relaxation response of the parasympathetic nervous system. In the old system, with the curse of death or suffering, patients didn’t feel safe or relaxed throughout their care or treatment. In the new system, activating the parasympathetic is key. This is why it’s so essential to release blocked emotions and fearful beliefs. This is why it’s so important to attend a support group or cultivate a practice of yoga, meditation, self-hypnosis or prayer. Again, research has shown that when a patient feels loved and safe amazing things can happen. The patient who’s been cursed to die, can go home to be with their friends and family, remember that they are loved and OK, and sometimes, powerfully and intentionally heal themselves.

Patrick Marsolek is a writer, dancer, facilitator, clinical hypnotherapist and the director of Inner Workings Resources. He leads groups and teaches classes in extended human capacities, consciousness exploration, personal development, and compassionate communication.  He is the author of Transform Yourself: A Self-hypnosis Manual and A Joyful Intuition. See www.PatrickMarsolek.com for more information.