I hope you’ve all been enjoying your summers. I’ve been in Israel and Gaza with our team, and more recently have been working on getting our programs ready for the fall (Professional Training Program in Mind-Body Medicine begins in just a little over a month!) as well as doing some writing.
I wanted to share with you a profile of me and of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine’s work that just appeared in the Jerusalem Post Magazine. The JP is one of Israel’s largest and most influential newspapers–in both Hebrew and English–and I am hopeful that the profile will be helpful as we raise both awareness and funding for the trauma and other programs in Israel and Gaza.
Profile from Jerusalem Post Magazine, by Lauren Gelfond Feldinger:
In that connection, we are beginning to organize a joint Israeli-Palestinian CancerGuides training in the summer of 2012. The CG program is much needed in Israel, and is of desperate importance in Gaza and the West Bank where people with cancer, particularly women, are often treated as pariahs.
Over the last year or so, we have organized the first cancer support program ever in Gaza, and now, we have ten groups running concurrently. You may remember that some of these cancer group participants are featured in our short video about Gaza, “Finding Hope in the Face of Another.”
Richard Sloan’s op-ed in the New York Times (“A fighting spirit won’t save your life”, January 25, 2011) is guilty of precisely the faults he attributes to those who believe that attitude can affect health – smug, self-righteous, and short on scientific evidence.
Prof. Sloan is of course correct when he takes to task those who believe that “requests to the universe” ensure good health, or that good people always receive good prognoses. But these are extremes, rhetorical straw men. There have in fact been years of important scientific investigations on the very real benefits of hopefulness and positive expectation.
Here are several examples: a 15 year follow-up of Steven Greer’s landmark study showed that a fighting spirit didn’t, over the long haul, enhance survival for women with advanced breast cancer; on the other hand, the follow-up did demonstrate that feelings of helplessness and hopelessness significantly decreased longevity. Contrary to what Prof. Sloan suggests, the pioneering work of Redford Williams and others has clearly shown connections between hostility and heart disease. And a number of investigations over 20 years have demonstrated that people with lung cancer who are more optimistic actually have better prognoses than those with a similar stage of disease and physical findings who are less sanguine.
Prof. Sloan does a disservice to readers and to the truth when he categorically denies the power of hope in healing.
Memoirs of depression like Daphne Merkin’s in The Sunday Times (May 10, 2009), and for that matter like William Styron’s Darkness Visible, make me sad. Of course I feel sadness for the writers’ dense and burdened suffering, set off so strikingly against their lucid, often spritely, prose. But more important, and far more troubling, I feel sad for the inadequacy of the therapeutic approaches they use, for the lack of understanding their suffering yields them, and, especially, for the fact that inadequate approaches and limited understanding are offered to readers as “state of the art.”
Daphne Merkin and her doctors seem to have concluded that depression is a disease characterized by inadequacies in brain chemistry and best treated by drugs that raise the levels of neurotransmitters like serotonin and/or norepinephrine. In fact, the evidence that depression is a disease is mixed at best, and the weight of the research evidence-negative studies on antidepressant drugs have notoriously been unpublished-suggests that antidepressants are little, if any, better than simple placebos.
What is absent from Merkin’s account, and, most sadly, from her experience, is an effort to address the fundamental biological, psychological and social processes that may precipitate depression and contribute to its persistence: the severely impaired response to stress that may indeed be the consequence of the kind of prolonged early life deprivation and trauma Merkin describes; nutritional deficiencies (apparently untested in Merkin’s case) that can cause or contribute even to the most severe depression; and the need for the healing power of sustained and sustaining support and intimacy that may have been absent in early life.
Nor do her therapists suggest other powerful, non-pharmacological modalities that are proving effective in significantly improving mood; for example, exercise, which is at least as effective as antidepressant drugs (it appears among other benefits to stimulate neuron growth in areas of the brain where cells have been destroyed by chronic stress and depression); and meditation which enlarges our perspective on the role of suffering in our lives and shifts brain activity from cortical areas connected with pessimism and depression to those associated with happiness and optimism.
Finally, the saddest thing about Merkin’s account is the passive role she assumed, one which it appears was acquiesced in, if not encouraged, by her therapists. “Do what we say; take the pills we tell you to,” they seemed to have said, “and all will be well.” In fact, therapeutic interventions in which we actively participate are doubly powerful. They have the kinds of inherent benefits I suggested above. Equally important, acting on our own behalf, working in concert with physicians and therapists who value our efforts, we overcome the helplessness and hopelessness that are the hallmarks of depression. Moving forward, as Merkin finally and unexpectedly does, we discover the possibility of change, to see, perhaps for the first time, light in the darkness which had seemed to surround us.
Gina Kolata’s April 24, 2009 front page New York Times story (“Advances Elusive in the Drive to Cure Cancer“) on the significant failure of our near-forty-year “war on cancer” provided a sobering and necessary corrective to inflated claims about cures already arrived or just around the corner. Kolata rightly chides those in the pharmaceutical, medical, and health food industries who claim that their approach promises a cure and notes our national failure to fund and launch truly innovative studies. She appropriately takes to task clinicians who use deceptive prognostic terminology: “progression free survival” does not, to the dismay of people who are so labeled, mean longer survival. On the other hand, Kolata’s actual or implied dismissal of the potent preventive and therapeutic power of diet and exercise, and of the role that attitude, mood, and social support can play in enhancing quality of life and perhaps prolonging survival, is ill-informed and potentially dangerous.
Though there is indeed some disagreement about the value of “high-fiber or low-fat” [my underlining] diets in preventing cancers of various kinds, there is a general consensus, shared by the National Cancer Institute, that diet plays a significant role in at least 35-40% of all cancers. In recent years it has become abundantly clear, for example, that obesity has an important role in making us vulnerable to cancer and to its recurrence. And there is considerable evidence that certain kinds of diet can have significant anti-cancer properties and effects: epidemiological studies show that populations with diets high in the omega-3 fats that are present in fish oil have a lower incidence of several cancers; one study published in the Journal of The National Cancer Institute in 2006 shows that reducing dietary fat may increase survival time for women with breast cancer. And then there is the data on specific foods: cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, etc.) have significant, repeatedly observed anticancer effects; tomatoes may help prevent prostate cancer; and soy may be useful for the prevention of breast cancer in premenopausal women.
Kolata does not, curiously, discuss exercise, but appears to marginalize it along with nutrition, as she presents the case of a fit vegetarian woman, Phyllis Kutt, whose breast cancer has recurred. Exercise is not of course a panacea, but it does appear to be a powerful tool in both preventing cancer and forestalling its recurrence. One important study, published in 2005 in The Journal of The American Medical Association , showed that 3-5 hours of walking per week significantly reduced the rate of breast cancer recurrence.
Stress, which Kolata also chooses to ignore, appears to be another important and perhaps remediable factor in hastening recurrence. Though the evidence is still weak that stress causes cancer (the exception may be overwhelming stress, as in bereavement, divorce, or massive trauma), studies are accumulating which show that chronic stress may speed up recurrences. In particular, it appears that high levels of hormones like cortisol that stress produces can inhibit enzymes that would otherwise help protect us against cancer.
Finally, group support, which has also been shown to be so helpful in improving quality of life, though not necessarily (here the data is mixed) extending life, is also given short shrift. Kolata tells a horror story of a support group whose members, apparently unable to deal with their own fears, rejected Kutt and forced her out of the group after her cancer had recurred.
For more than ten years my colleagues and I at The Center for Mind-Body Medicine have accepted the challenge of exploring and clarifying the limitations, as well as the benefits, of conventional cancer care and of bringing an open-minded but critical perspective to therapies that are said to complement or be alternatives to them. We have been training what we call CancerGuides(R)–health and mental health professionals and patient advocates who can provide informed and compassionate guidance to people with cancer and their families as they navigate among the bewildering array of therapeutic options and professional opinions. Our CancerGuides learn to cut through the hype about conventional care as well as complementary and alternative approaches. They work collaboratively with people with cancer and their families to create comprehensive programs of care which include evidence-based nutritional and herbal approaches, exercise, massage, acupuncture, and stress-reducing mind-body techniques as well as appropriate conventional therapies. They learn to help people with cancer put all therapeutic and preventive studies on a “level playing field” in which evidence for every approach, whether called “conventional” or “alternative,” is looked at with the same thoughtful, critical gaze.
The oncology professionals and patient advocates we train (sometimes nonprofessionals who have themselves faced the challenges of cancer and its treatment can be the most discriminating and skillful of guides) help those they are guiding to ask the right, and often hard, questions of their oncologists. We also help these CancerGuides to develop the sensitivity that is necessary to encourage and support each person with cancer to make choices that are appropriate to his or her unique situation.
We teach our trainees mind-body approaches (guided imagery, meditation, biofeedback, yoga, etc.) and expressive therapies (written exercises, drawings, and movement) that are so helpful in reducing chronic stress (and levels of stress hormones) and in dealing with the difficult choices and challenges that cancer and its treatment presents. Finally, over time, we train these CancerGuides to lead groups that are genuinely supportive, groups that help people with cancer come to terms with their fears rather than (like Ms. Kutt’s group members) shun those who provoke them, groups where true compassion trumps emotional convenience.
We as a nation have certainly not won the war on cancer. But we have learned over the last forty years that there are things each of us can do to reduce the risk of cancer and, in some instances, slow or forestall its recurrence. We have learned also that acting on our own behalf to create programs in which self-care is integral is, itself, stress-reducing and therapeutic, helping people with cancer to overcome the feelings of helplessness and hopelessness that so often debilitate them. And we have found too, as so many people with cancer would testify, that such efforts often become an opening to remarkable self-discovery and psychological and spiritual growth.
There is no silver bullet for most cancers, or sure cure for those whose cancers have advanced. But creating a comprehensive program that includes diet, exercise, stress management, and genuine support, a full array of options critically examined, may offer a measure of scientifically grounded common-sense help from which all of us can take heart.
James S. Gordon, M.D., a psychiatrist, is creator of the CancerGuides(R) training program and Founder and Director of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine. He is the author, with Sharon Curtin, of Comprehensive Cancer Care: The Integrating Alternative, Complementary, and Conventional Therapies and of Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey Out of Depression.
Read more about the upcoming CancerGuides training, June 11-14th in Washington DC
As appeared on The Huffington Post
Our exciting training program, CancerGuides® II will be offered June 11-14, here in DC (along with Food As Medicine). You can help us as we offer our groundbreaking, integrative trainings by telling everyone you know about the programs, posting the fliers in your offices and clinics, handing them out on the street, etc. etc. Download a flier here.
A quick note: CancerGuides II is absolutely appropriate and accessible for cancer survivors and their families, not only for professionals. Everyone will have the opportunity to meet leaders in the field of integrative care, and to get the most up-to-date practical information–about nutrition, yoga, massage, Chinese medicine, and cutting-edge alternative therapies among many other topics. We would love to see you there, and there are generous partial scholarships available. Check out the website (see above) to learn more.
I hope you understand that you all – staff and faculty, along with our Board, and all those who support and participate in our programs – are the foundation for all we do, the juice that keeps nourishing our work, nourishing me, and helping us to grow. I’m so eager to hear from you and to see you soon, or to meet you for the first time at one of our exciting upcoming trainings.