Spirituality and the radical remission of cancer
When Kelly Turner began researching spontaneous remission as part of her doctoral dissertation, she did her best to keep an open mind. This led her to the realization that the avenues for treating and even curing cancer are a lot more diverse than one might expect, including a number of thought-based approaches that put the patient squarely in the driver seat of his or her own health.
Part one of this two-part column explored the inspiration behind Dr. Turner’s upcoming book, Radical Remission: Surviving Cancer Against All Odds, the nature and implications of her research, and the reception she’s received from her peers. This last installment will examine what she considers her most important discovery and will take a closer look at the role of spirituality in the treatment of this disease.
“My research is qualitative research, so I go in with no hypothesis,” said Turner during a recent interview. “I go in willing to hear anything. So, if every single one of my subjects had said, ‘I had shark cartilage and that’s what healed me,’ that’s what I would have written down.”
Although none of the initial 20 or subsequent 80 (and counting) cancer survivors she interviewed about their remission said anything about shark cartilage, they did bring up a number of other factors that they believe relate to their cure, most of which had to do with their state of mind. Of the nine most commonly mentioned “treatments,” as Turner calls them, seven dealt with emotional and spiritual issues.
“I was fully expecting a lot more physical stuff to come up, but it didn’t,” she said.
This is not to say that the physical condition of these individuals was not addressed. It was, either through non-conventional means from the start or, after having tried a conventional medical approach, through other alternatives such as meditation or reconnecting with loved ones. However, it is the overall manner in which this was done that presented Turner with her most startling revelation: Ultimately it wasn’t about adopting a western-based approach to destroying cancer cells but, rather, adopting certain thoughts and behaviors geared toward “cleaning up the body.”
“According to my research, there are many ways to clean up a body,” she said. “You can do it with diet. You can do it with meditation. You can do it with supplements. You can do it with forgiveness.”
For conventional medical researchers, this presents a bit of a problem, since not every cancer remission is affected in the same manner. This is not the case, however, for Turner.
“I think that’s a narrow view of looking at it,” she said. “I think because I’m not a medical doctor – and I’m glad I’m not, because it allowed me to go into this without any of my knowledge needing to be broken down – I just went in as someone who cares about cancer patients, and so I didn’t have to have all of my training be taken away in order to hear what these people were saying.”
What they said, either directly or indirectly, is that there is an undeniable connection between mind and body, perhaps most noticeably when fear is involved.
“As soon as we go into fear, our bodies are not healing,” said Turner. “It is one or the other. We’re either in fight or flight or we’re in rest and repose. The problem with cancer is that there’s so much fear around that word that most cancer patients instantly go into fear and stay there. It’s hard for your body to heal when you’re in fight or flight mode. It just is.”
Experiencing what she calls a “deepening spirituality” is one of the ways that Turner’s subjects overcame this fear.
One individual she interviewed, who had brain cancer, was told he had about two months to live after having tried everything that conventional medicine had to offer. Even though he had never been religious or even particularly spiritual, he decided on a whim to visit a spiritual healer in Brazil.
“He ended up staying there for two years and basically meditated for three days a week, eight hours a day,” said Turner. “He’d never meditated before, but two years later, his MRI was completely clean and he’s been cancer free ever since.”
Of course, this approach to health and healing isn’t new, only the language to describe it is. Since the days of Abraham and Moses, Jesus and St. Paul – clear up until the present day – people have been discovering that even a slight shift in thought from a limited, matter-based view of things to a more divinely inspired one has the effect of making the body better.
While there are some who see this kind of thing as little more than positive thinking, Turner sees it more complexly, noting that an individual’s conscious thought (what we hear ourselves thinking in our head) and his or her underlying belief need to be in sync in order for the mind to have an effect on the body, regardless of the approach.
“If you’re swallowing [a placebo] and you don’t know it’s a sugar pill and you think it’s medicine, your conscious thought, or your superficial thought, is, ‘This is medicine and this is going to heal me,’ and your deeper belief agrees with that,” she said. “Your deeper belief is, ‘Medicine is good and medicine leads to healing.’”
“You could say the same thing about prayer,” she continued. “If you’re saying, ‘I am praying for God to heal me,’ and deep down you have a very firm, unwavering belief that divine energy can have a very powerful healing effect on the body – when those things are in alignment, the chances of there being a positive effect on the body are much higher.”
Turner’s contributions to the study of spontaneous remission are likely to go well beyond her initial book. In fact, she’s already set out to redefine the phenomenon altogether.
“To use the word ‘spontaneous’ really takes away from what I have found in my research,” she said, “which is, many of these people worked very hard to get better. They didn’t just sit there and twiddle their thumbs and poof, one day their cancer was gone.”
The better term, according to Turner, is “radical remission.”
“I think ‘radical’ indicates two things,” she said. “It indicates that this is a radical occurrence. This is out of the ordinary. Number two is that it involves radical changes, which is really the heart of my research – that these people made radical changes to their lives.”
Turner is also building a free online database at radicalremission.com where individuals can share anonymously their own stories of radical remission. Eventually this will become a searchable repository for doctors and patients alike.
But perhaps her greatest contribution will be the degree to which she pierces the specter of cancer itself – for others, certainly, but also for herself.
“Since I was a girl I was very afraid of this disease,” said Turner. “Just to have my own fear go away as a result of my research has been a relief for me, and if my research can help other cancer patients get a little less fearful, then I think that’s something positive to give them.”