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Reactions To Cancer/Feelings Discussion

18 Aug

Hello again.

Well, yikes, I certainly managed to infuriate a lot of people when I reported last week about the Harvard study showing that feelings don’t affect cancer outcomes. I guess I didn’t explain myself very well, so I’ll take this opportunity to try again.

[This is another time I find myself wishing our new blog were up and running, because it would be great to post all the reactions and have a community discussion about this very important and very confusing, confounding topic. The blog is coming, but in the meantime, I’ll do my best to show a fair sample of reactions (without the names because these were sent to me, not the world at large) to convey the nature of the conversation.] And, by the way, we figure that for every complaint we get about something, there are at least ten times more that were not expressed. So I guess I really hit a nerve here.

One person wrote:

I was very disappointed in Belleruth's commentary on the Harvard study. Anyone in the field of alternative medicine should know better. What are her CD's for? I thought releasing stress, thereby enhancing positive emotions and feelings leading to a more balanced autonomic nervous system, increased immunity, lower cortisol levels. etc. etc.!!! One can find many other studies saying positive thoughts and emotions do indeed aid in healing of ANY condition. Perhaps, she should read some of those studies, and then comment. I LOVED her CD"S, but now doubt that I will listen to any of them ever again. Also, Belleruth might benefit from reading some psychoneuroimmunology studies for up to date info. on this emerging and exciting field.

Another fellow said,

The first update about cancer is depressing and maybe counter-productive to people that are using imagery and affirmations trying to help themselves. What is the purpose of sending it?

On the other hand, I got other emails like this one:

I was so glad to read your update this week, BR! I have a beloved friend with cancer who has been driving me mad with her insistence that she only allow herself positive, hopeful thoughts, in order to lick her disease. I know she is scared to death, very upset, and sooooo needing to have a good cry. I know her! A good cry would help her so much more than all the phony smiles and phrases she manufactures. Also, the fake "positivity" isolates her from us - the people who love her - because she’s not being real. So instead of being able to provide her with supportive closeness and connection, we are kept at a distance by this maddening behavior of hers. The first thing I did was forward your letter to her - before I even finished reading it! I pray it will make a dent!!!!!!

But more people expressed anger than delight. Here is one of the more intense reactions:

If you truly believe that FEELINGS have no place in the healing of cancer (or other ailments) than why are you selling so many CD's that reinforce that the people that are listening to them are FEELING better???? Aren't your comments on the Health Letter a contradiction of what you say to sell your CD's. I have known many cancer patients who when they changed their FEELINGS about their condition they began to improve.

Very disappointed in the way you explained you're FEELINGS on this subject - I have been to your seminars & what I have heard you say in the seminars & what you have expressed in support of the Harvard Health Letter are quite different - is it because it is "THE Harvard Health Letter"?

OK, so first of all, let me just say that I don’t promote ideas I don’t believe in, just to cynically sell products. (Yech!) Nor am I overly impressed or intimidated by the folks at Harvard Medical School (I used to work at one of their hospitals and am therefore all too familiar with their flaws as well as their strengths).

I do think there has been an oversold and even dangerous idea that "positive" feelings are necessary to heal from cancer and other illnesses. The result has been a kind of "emotional imperialism" foisted upon people who are ill, to the tune of "You must be optimistic and hopeful and have a good attitude or you will succumb!" Relatives, friends and professional caregivers are guilty of this simplistic form of oppression, and it’s a lousy thing to do to someone who’s sick. Actually it’s a lousy thing to do with someone who’s well too.

I would argue that any feelings are good feelings, as long as they are acknowledged and allowed. Indeed, my affirmations usually start out with a statement like this:

I know there are times when I become worried, fearful, angry, impatient or sad, and I accept what I feel as my inner truth of the moment.

And that’s usually followed by a second affirmation that goes like this:

I know the more I can acknowledge and accept what I feel, without criticism or blame, the more I allow my body to heal.

There is no inconsistency here. Those affirmations say exactly what I mean. Feelings are energy. Denying feelings tamps down energy. Allowing feelings (which is not the same as wallowing in them, people!) creates a coherent, strong human with more energy to cope and deal with the situation.

Imagery helps people whether they feel happy and positive or not. True, it does tend to relax the listener and get some feel-good biochemicals rolling along in the bloodstream. But that’s not the main driver. The point is, when the listener is relaxed, he or she is more receptive and the unconscious is more available to be influenced by images of healing, be that on a cellular level, a physiological level or a more archetypal, energetic or spiritual level.

Because imagery pings on the right brain, it’s better able to cohere mind, body and spirit behind the goal of healing, and get the whole human being into the act. And because it alleviates side effects, such as pain, nausea, anxiety, sleeplessness and fatigue, it’s a terrific tool to keep somebody motivated and strong during the rigorous, unpleasant process of treatment and recovery from treatment - chemo or radiation or surgery or all of the above.

Of course this has to do with psychoneuroimmunology. Our website is filled with PNI abstracts of the latest studies - it’s a huge database and at last count there were 38 under "cancer" alone - not counting chemotherapy or radiation therapy. I track this stuff very closely, every week, and with great enthusiasm. Imagining an increase in NK cells actually produces an increase in NK cells, whether you have a positive attitude or a happy face or not.

What I hate to see is people being browbeaten into expressing "positive" thoughts and feelings they don’t really have, because they think it risks their survival to be honest with themselves and others. It doesn’t.

And that was the point I wanted to make. This is not a simple equation. We’re far more complex, elegantly layered and complicated beings than what that half-baked notion (If I have happy thoughts and feelings, I will cure my cancer) implies! We’ve gone too far on the other extreme of the mind-body equation, and that can be just as oppressive as the idea that we have no influence over our bodies.

Let’s keep the conversation going. This is good!! And if I’m still aggravating you with these ideas, then I must still be expressing myself poorly, I figure.

All best,

P.S. Check out our new Multi-Tasker Pack for people who are so busy, they need to relax but don’t have time to. This could be great for anyone winding up for a crazy fall schedule, including junior high and high school kids getting ready to go back to school. I can vouch for it (as I sit here, hunched over my laptop with the phone in my ear and a 9 month old squeezer grandkid gnawing companionably on my ankle).

The pack consists of the most excellent Bodhipaksa’s Guided Meditations for Busy People, with his 9 brief but potent guided mindfulness exercises; Our Stress Less Inhalation Beads that allow you to inhale restorative peace with the calming aromas of lavender, chamomile and sage; Gael Chiarella’s popular PM Yoga Meditations to help you slip into sleep, quickly and easily; and my Affirmations (that, as previously noted, affirm that any feelings are good feelings, among other things).

Belleruth Naparstek

Psychotherapist, author and guided imagery pioneer Belleruth Naparstek is the creator of the popular Health Journeys guided imagery audio series. Her latest book on imagery and posttraumatic stress, Invisible Heroes: Survivors of Trauma and How They Heal (Bantam Dell), won the Spirituality & Health Top 50 Books Award