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Cancer, a New View: What Is Positive Thinking?

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On Nov. 27, "CBS Sunday Morning" aired a segment about whether positive thoughts have anything to do with healing. I was featured on the show and my voice resounded a firm, "Yes, it does matter." Lance Armstrong and Boston College Linebacker Mark Herzlich, who was told he would never run again after getting bone cancer, were also on the show. We all know Armstrong's harrowing story. And Herzlich is back on the football field in full force. Both Armstrong and Herzlich say that positive attitudes contributed to why and how they transcended their cancers and resumed their lives as world-class athletes. Although I'm no athlete, my experience matches theirs.

Even so, psychologist Richard Sloan of Columbia Medical Center said that it's "dangerous nonsense, to think that you can think your way out of cancer, or think your way out of heart disease." Sloan has "done extensive examinations of survival studies." And James Coyne, a psychologist from the University of Pennsylvania conducted one of those studies by asking if "emotion and well-being predict survival. The answer? It was as close to 'not at all' as you could get." We never learn to whom he asked that question or how the study was conducted.

Dr. Barry Boyd, an oncologist and director of nutrition at the Yale Medical Center offers "a glimmer of hope" because preliminary studies show that how people deal with stress may influence some cancer outcomes. He goes on to say that in some people hope and optimism could change the biology of their tumor. The report then segues back to what's clearly the angle they want to reiterate. "But all the experts we spoke to agreed on one thing: There is a danger to the relentless promotion of positive thinking as a means to ward off the inevitable."

What is the inevitable? That every cancer patient will die? What if the optimism does help ward off the inevitable? How would the psychologists know?

I love that this concept is being debated on mainstream network television. This conversation needs to occur more often because, according to a survey posted at the end of the show, 91 percent of those polled believe that the role of positive thoughts does indeed contribute to happier living. That's a pretty hefty number and certainly justifies more attention from national news shows.

I'm a staunch believer in the power of the mind, but I doubt that even the most rigorous double blind studies could capture the myriad nuances that occur inside the mind of an individual. We are complex beings and all the positive thinking in the world may not be able to trump troubling emotional issues or sabotaging subconscious beliefs that need to be addressed before thoughts can have a healing effect. Using positive thoughts to heal is not as simple as it's made out to be.

Because science isn't (yet) equipped to track every thought, emotion, feeling and subconscious notion that makes up who we are, it's important and relevant to seriously consider the empirical experiences of people who have had remarkable recoveries. For example, those I interviewed for Embrace, Release Heal, who were told they would die after conventional treatment failed them, found many different ways to heal -- which does not include being superficially cheerful. Employing positive thinking goes much deeper than that. When we decide to use our mind for healing purposes, it takes unparalleled discipline and courage. We venture into the deepest and often scariest parts of ourselves to discover what unhealed wounds are festering inside. We don't put on a happy face when struggling. We fight our darkest demons; admit to wrong doing; release decades-old resentments; and forgive ourselves and others. This business of freeing oneself from the weight of long-held emotional distresses isn't for sissies. Anyone who has taken seriously the task of being responsible for their health and life experience will tell you that. But like any other tool in the big medicine chest of life, there's no guarantee that augmenting medical treatment with this approach will render us disease free. It will be liberating in many ways and change life for the better. But it is not a guarantee. Nor is chemo, radiation or surgery.

That stress levels affect our physical well-being is nothing new, but wasn't touched upon in the show. Dr. David Felten, a researcher at Beaumont Hospitals, discovered the pathway between the brain and body to establish the widely accepted science called psychoneuroimmunology. Simply put, it's the science explaining that when our thoughts or feelings are rooted in love, joy, compassion, hope and so on, our brains release chemicals that boost our immune system. Likewise, when we're in the throes of negativity as expressed through anger, hatred, blame, fear and so on, other chemicals are released that suppress our immune system. This should be proof positive that how we feel matters.

Then, of course, there's the placebo effect. All clinical drug trials are based on results from the placebo effect. Results from drugs must be 20 to 30 percent more effective than the placebo to be deemed worthy of pursuit. Why isn't anyone studying how the placebo effect works and how to help people harness their own inner healing abilities?

The CBS segment was a good start, but it didn't acknowledge that we have great power in how we use our minds. There are good, solid studies that can help tell that story, even though the report said that they are "hokum or hype based on bad science." I look forward to hearing how the conversation progresses, and it inevitably will. Until then, I choose to keep reading books that keep me positive and continue to surround myself with people who believe in the multi-dimensional life experience. After all, unfolding the mystery of who we are can be the most exciting part of all.

To learn more about the scientific study of our mind and thoughts, visit the Institute of Noetic Science

View the CBS Sunday Morning segment on healing and positive thinking.

Leigh Fortson has been writing and editing books about health and nutrition for decades. She is the author of Embrace, Release, Heal: An Empowering Guide to Talking About, Thinking About, and Treating Cancer (Sounds True, 2011). To learn more, go to embracehealingcancer.com.

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