Spontaneous healing - how is it possible?

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Dr Bernie Siegel, professor at the Yale School of Medicine and surgeon at two hospitals, became extremely frustrated because of the hopelessness of cancer patients he operated on and the endless repetition that nothing more could be done for a patient. After a radical inner turnaround he began to study people who 'just' cured, so scientifically inexplicable. According to him, 15 to 20% of patients refuse to play victim. These people demand dignity and participation, whatever the course of the disease. Siegel argues:

A miracle, such as a permanent remission of cancer, is rare; it is a valuable fact and should not be dismissed as a windfall. And if one patient can do it, there is no reason why others cannot. I realised that medicine was studying its failures, while it should have learned from its successes.

Biochemical researcher Caryle Hirshberg and editor of the American magazine Psychology Today Marc Ian Barash also addressed this subject, studying the psychological and social factors involved in disease development and healing. The Helen Downing Institute in the Netherlands also deals with this subject in depth.

What the above-mentioned researchers concluded is that the source of healing lies first and foremost with the patient. There is a certain state of being that plays a role in all cases of spontaneous healing studied: it concerns people who may accept the diagnosis, but not the prognosis. People who take responsibility for their own lives, including their healing. A life change such as Siegel had experienced himself is the result of this. Often that change is preceded by a violent period, a catharsis, for example in the form of a violent infection with high fever or an emotional outburst. It does not always make people 'nicer'. They set limits and often make far-reaching decisions with regard to their private life or work. Overly sad family members have to temporarily leave the field or a flashy career is said goodbye to because it doesn't make them happy. Later on, such a turnaround does result in more loving relationships.

It is not the sweet people who always do everything for everyone, not the docile who have the most chance of a spontaneous remission, but the people who discover their own autonomy. For the medical staff these are often annoying customers, who ask questions about everything, refuse treatments, want to improve their own medical file or show that they know 'it' better themselves. And that is just the way it is. They are, according to Hirshberg and Barash, people who are loyal to themselves, or to their often just-discovered Self. On the other hand, Siegel argues that there are people who are so obedient that when the doctor says:

You still have two months to live,

they die on the day after the two months. Conversely, this does not mean that obedient people do not have a chance to heal, nor that troublesome people will heal. These are general tendencies that are observed by all researchers. But there is more: a loving and supportive environment, for example. The obvious things like exercise and healthy eating can play a role if that is what the autonomous person chooses, but they can just as well choose to continue with an unhealthy lifestyle and still heal.

Nobody can learn to be like that, because imitation does not work; it has to come from within. Siegel decided to continue his profession, but in a completely different way. He put his desk against the wall to meet patients on an equal footing, allowed them to call him by his first name and devoted himself entirely to strengthening the autonomy and the positive possibilities of a sick person.

Hirshberg and Barash, in their book Remarkable Recovery: what extraordinary healings tell us about getting well and staying well [1]:

Perhaps the healing system is not regulated by ourselves, but is, in the most fundamental sense of the term, our self, the urge for wholeness which arises from the deepest ground of our being; our longing for congruence.

Siegel quotes Plato in his book Love, Medicine and Miracles. Lessons learned about self-healing from a surgeon’s experience with exceptional patients [2], from Book IV of his Laws [3]:

Have you ever noticed that there are two classes of patients... slaves and free men? And the doctors of the slaves run from one patient to another, constantly prescribing medication. These kinds of doctors never talk to their patients or let them talk about their symptoms. The slave's physician prescribes what experience teaches as if he has exact knowledge, and when he has given his orders, like a tyrant, he rushes with equal self-confidence to the next sick servant. (...) But the other doctor, who is a free man, cares for and visits free people; he asks profound questions, goes far back in time and searches for the nature of the disorder; he enters into discussion with the patient and his friends, immediately receives information from the sick man and at the same time gives him instructions as best he can; and he will not prescribe anything to him until he has convinced him first. (...) If one of the doctors who treat their patients as slaves would meet one of the doctors who approach the patient as a human being and would hear him talking to his patient using a language which sometimes sounds almost philosophical; if he would hear him discuss the disease process from the very beginning and hear him discuss the total nature of the body, then he would burst out in a cheerful laugh. He would say what most of those who are called doctors have in front of them: ‘Silly man, you don't cure the sick man, you teach him, and he doesn't want to become a doctor, he wants to be cured’.

An example from Love, Medicine and Miracles:

In her teens, Louise got cancer of the ovaries with metastases to the abdomen and lungs. Her oncologist 'gave' her six to twelve months to live with chemotherapy. She told him that only God knew when her time was up and took her life into her own hands. She left home because of difficulties, looked for an apartment, and spent her last ten dollars placing an ad in which she offered to help other cancer patients. At one point, her oncologist had refused further treatment because she was already ‘too far gone’, but six months after she had gone her own way, all her tumours had disappeared. Her doctor was so moved that he couldn't tell her out loud, but with tears in his eyes shoved a prescription bill at her, on which he had written: ‘Your cancer is gone’. On the day she should have died, Louise wrote him a cheerful note with the question: ‘Where should I send the coffin?’

In Remarkable Recovery there is the extensive story of the very healthy living Suzanna McDougal, in whom an ovarian tumour the size of a four month old foetus was found. The patient had no overriding objections to conventional medicine, but refused to have her uterus removed. A cyst was removed, plus an ovary.

I don't see a hospital as a convalescent home, so I went home three days after that major abdominal operation’, she proudly says. Three days later, she was told by phone that it was an aggressive, rapidly progressing form of cancer and that she had to come back immediately to have her uterus removed. She would think about it and instead decided to live an extremely healthy life, doing among other things what everyone had always advised against: singing. The prognosis still turned out to be very gloomy: a new tumour on her remaining ovary. McDougal doubled her efforts and started to visualise vividly, among other things, that she was riding a horse. On her next visit to the attending physician, there was no trace of her tumour. Her doctor wrote: ‘This patient is wise, intelligent and determined to try alternative, unconventional remedies for her proven ovarian cancer. So far, she has been successful, as there is no evidence that the tumour is coming back. She is willing to accept the risks and I recognise that she has the right to decide her own fate.

We also know spontaneous healings from close by: a friend suffered from epilepsy as a child. When he was sixteen, this manifested itself in violent form. He took medication for two years and then met a woman whose influence put him on the path of spirituality. He started to think differently and asked his doctor, a normally nice woman, if he could reduce the medication and he could heal himself with homeopathy.

At that moment the doctor tore up my data card and told me that I no longer had access to the care, and that this would mean my death. After that I never really had any more seizures, only the occasional absence and a feeling of losing control of myself. I just let that flow and it slowly disappeared.

His daughter had an even more severe form of epilepsy, in which she fell almost daily, even in traffic. The doctors wanted to operate on her amygdala (part of the limbic system in the brain). She refused the operation and within a few months she learned with biofeedback to prevent her seizures. What remains is that now and then she looks or laughs a bit strange, but she no longer has any seizures.

Furthermore, the following testimony about the self-healing capacity of the body reached us at close quarters:

After my heart attack, I had decided to follow the advice of the cardiologists to have two bypasses made and have surgery. Two vessels were too clogged and/or calcified.  The day before the surgery it became clear to me that the first bypass was being made in the heart itself, by using material from the heart, but that for the second bypass a blood vessel had to be taken from elsewhere in my body. For this purpose a strong line was drawn on my right calf. The day after the operation the surgeon came to tell me that the second detour had not been performed, because the heart itself had made a new connection for the blood flow and she came to show me the location of that new connection.

The surgical team responded happily and with amazement at this development.



[1] C. Hirshberg and M.I. Barash, Remarkable Recovery: what extraordinary healings tell us about getting well and staying well, Riverhead Books 1996

[2] B. Siegel, Love, Medicine and Miracles. Lessons learned about self-healing from a surgeon’s experience with exceptional patients, William Morrow & Company, 1998

[3] Plato, Laws, Volume I: Books 1-6Classical Library 187, Harvard University Press,  Cambridge1926

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