In the past we have characterized cancer as a disease of deficiency - a slow-motion starving of vital nutrients resulting from the wholesale industrialization of food - or of the environment - a slow-motion poisoning from our chronic exposure to some 20,000 chemicals present in our air, food, water and homes. Clearly, these elements play an important supporting role. But perhaps not the leading one.
They do not, for instance, explain spontaneous remission. They do not explain how a giant mass can be there one day and virtually melt away the next. A small body of research concerns terminal cancer patients who, with little or no medical intervention, end up beating the odds.
Clearly, what's going on there is something more complex than eating your greens and throwing away your toxic cleaning products.
Lately, I've been sifting through these studies, looking for the moral of the story. What these cases collectively say about cancer is highly instructive. In case after case, they describe people up against a major roadblock in their lives: an unremitting stress, an unresolved trauma, a prolonged hostility; a marked isolation; a profound dissatisfaction; a quiet despair (Am J Psychother, 1958; 12: 723).
They describe people who are boxed in a corner with no apparent way out, people who have lost not only the plot but also their role as the central protagonist of their own life drama (Humane Med, April 1987). They are people who, in short, hurt deeply in their very souls.
Those people who beat their cancer, whose survival remains unexplained, are those same individuals who find a way out of the corner. They get rid of the source of the psychological heartache: they divorce the abusive husband (Sem Urol, 1989; 7: 149-52); they resolve the problem with their mother or daughter, they take full responsibility for their illness (J Hum Psychol, 1989; 29: 59-83).
But most important of all, they find the lost meaning in their lives. They play the piano or go trekking in Tibet, if that's what they always meant to do before they got derailed. They find a path back to their joie de vivre.
I've also been reading studies showing how profoundly and quickly the brain alters its function and even its physical structure from mindfulness meditation (Psychosom Med, 2003; 65: 564-70; NeuroReport, 2000; 11:1581-5). Mindfulness meditation is more than just relaxation. It creates a profound change in your worldview: an acceptance of 'what is' in the current moment without a judgemental overlay.
What this research suggests is that our physicality is like Play-Doh, to be molded from our conscious thoughts. Form follows function. If the brain can be physically revised throughout life just by thinking better thoughts, so too can the rest of the body.
Most of the theories about cancer we examine in this special issue result from some aspect of this paradigm - the dynamic and energetic plasticity of the body as a maidservant of consciousness.
Much has been written about the so-called 'cancer personality'. For us, the real question is getting to the heart of the cancer in your soul.