When cancer goes away

Let’s face it, you’re complicated. Much as scientists like to put us on straight tracks that lead to measurable and inevitable endpoints, we curve, dip, bend and even go into reverse.

If we’re unlucky enough to develop cancer, the disease doesn’t always follow its inexorable path from stage I to stage IV when it’s not successfully treated. Instead, it sometimes just goes away.

This strange and very unscientific phenomenon, known as spontaneous remission, was first reported by doctors more than 130 years ago. Since then, nearly 4,000 cases of spontaneous remission from end-stage cancer have been reported in the medical literature.

The Institute of Noetic Sciences, which carried out a review in 1993, thinks there are many more that have gone unreported, often because the patient disappears from medicine’s gaze.

But why does it happen? Holistic cancer specialist Bernie Siegel used to challenge his patients to finally express the things they’d never said or do the creative things they’d always held back on. We’re emotional, physical and spiritual beings, and each aspect of us has to be expressed and fulfilled, he reasoned. If we suppress any part of the triad, we can get sick.

When Kelly Turner was studying for her degree in psychotherapy, she became fascinated by spontaneous remission, but also puzzled as to why nobody was discussing the phenomenon, let alone researching it.

After graduating, she decided to dive deeper. She interviewed around 1,500 people who had experienced “radical remission,” as she calls it, which she has defined as anyone with end-stage cancer who either never had conventional medical treatment or could not be helped by it, and yet fully healed.

In those interviews, she picked up common threads that were shared by many of the survivors. She discovered there were nine essential ones, which she outlined in her book, Radical Remission (HarperOne, 2015). As Bernie Siegel also found, they are about expression and taking control, physically, emotionally and spiritually.

In the physical segment of the triad, a radical change of diet is key. Out go the processed foods and drinks dripping in sugar, and instead vegetables, fruits and whole grains fill the plate.

Making sure we’re properly nourished with the right supplements and herbs that also spark the immune system into cancer-fighting action is the second factor in the physical sphere, and the third is taking charge of your health. In other words, get in the driver’s seat and don’t be a passive recipient of medical advice and treatment.

But we don’t live by bread alone, even if it is gluten free. We’re also a seething mass of emotions, and these can have as direct an influence on our health as anything we eat. Turner found that the cancer survivors she interviewed had successfully ‘released’ their emotions—either through a therapy or just getting honest with those around them.

Then there’s the half-empty, half-full outlook on life. It’s been noticed by other researchers that people who maintain positive outlooks suffer fewer illnesses than those of a more pessimistic mien, and Turner discovered the same thing among her cancer survivors.

As a final component to emotional health, trusting our intuition also plays a key role—listening to, and acting on, our own still, small voice and giving less significance to others and their opinions.

Spiritually, we need to make a connection to something bigger and greater than ourselves. It could be to God, but it could also be to an ideal, to humanity or our community. Leading on from that, we need better reasons to be alive. We need a purpose, whether that’s in our work or relationships; in short, we should be looking to make the world, or those closest around us, better for us having been alive.

Finally, we should be connecting more socially. That could be joining a community or even a local book club, but it involves supporting, and being supported by, others.

These are a mighty nine, and Turner is continuing her research with Harvard T H Chan School of Public Health.

Some oncologists dismiss the idea of spontaneous remission and maintain that cancer is a physiological process that needs a physical factor to end it. This may be so, but Turner has outlined some non-physical factors that trigger the physiological reversal.

See, you are complicated.