Grace is small, slight, and dark and moves almost without sound at the side of her two blond sons. But once she registers, like a negative coming alive in a tray of developer, her image stays with me, still, mournful and isolated among a crowd of a hundred adults and children who have come, curious, clamoring and needy, for Wellness Day at the Grand Isle Community Center.
Grand Isle sits at the end of a forty mile long sliver of Louisiana coast that pokes into the Gulf of Mexico. It is regularly throttled by hurricanes and, more recently, invaded by the BP oil spill of April, 2010. I’m there with a team from our sister organization the Mind-Body Center of Louisiana, physicians and psychotherapists whom the Washington DC based Center for Mind-Body Medicine has trained. Beginning just after Katrina in 2006 we’ve taught them, as we have clinicians and community leaders around the world, to teach self care – meditation and guided imagery, drawings and dance – and to lead small supportive groups in which kids and adults can learn to use these and other tools to quiet their anxiety, gain perspective on seemingly intractable problems, and feel the connection to others who are also struggling to mend their lives.
For many, particularly on Louisiana’s Gulf Coast, the oil spill was the insupportable last straw: “The hurricanes, Katrina and Gustav, scared us and took our money and some of our homes,” Judy a fit, gravel voiced 51 year old house painter who has already been in one of our eight week long mind-body groups, tells me as we take a break on the porch of the Community Center. “But this BP thing doesn’t go away. Of course, it’s in our bodies” – in an authoritative survey a year ago 48% of all Louisiana Gulf Coast residents reported “an abnormal increase of at least one health symptom”. Judy has “headaches and these rashes,” pointing to her red blotched legs, “I never had before, and my grand kids are wheezing and have sinus problems. My friend, a healthy, clean-living Christian lady younger than me has already passed from a pneumonia that never went away.
“But it’s even worse for our minds and souls.” The beach and the Gulf which were “always my solace” are now “torture” to Judy who the other day, long after residents have been told that the waters are safe, counted “forty-eight dead animals washed up, fish of all sizes and big old sea turtles, with their intestines hanging out. We know,” she concludes sadly, “it’s our mother the Earth that’s been hurt.”
Employable and feisty, equipped with skills for self-care, Judy is poised to make a new life elsewhere with her daughter and grandchildren. Grace and her family, like dozens of others whom we have met on the Gulf, and inland too, feel trapped as well as endangered. You can see it in her eyes, scampering across my face, back and forth over her six and nine year old boys, and around the room, vigilant, it seems to me, for threats. The white plastic bracelet she still chooses to keep on her wrist, emblem, she tells me, of a recent, long and scary medical work-up, reminds me of the metal ones that indicted felons under house arrest may be forced to wear on their ankles.
Except Grace and her family no longer have a house or even a rented room. Her husband Ty, who sits stolidly nearby, worked on the rigs for BP and then, like 52,000 other Gulf coast residents, on the clean-up crew He is now, he says, seeming a bit dazed, “on call,” to BP, a kind of economic and social limbo in which he has no work or pay and cannot collect unemployment.
Grace has been told that the numbness in her face, the headaches and the weakness in her limbs signal the onset of multiple sclerosis and that medicine has little to offer. When I say that many others have developed similar symptoms since the oil spill, that they, like the rashes, respiratory and digestive problems, depression, confusion, and anxiety have been noted in medical journals as toxic side-effects of the oil and the dispersants, not of MS, she seems unconvinced. The diagnosis has been made, the sentence already passed.
In the morning I teach slow deep breathing to quiet anxiety. We do shaking and dancing to release tension and raise spirits and over lunch I give a talk on foods that help the liver detoxify the chemicals from the spill and the clean-up. At the end of the day we all – children and adults – do three drawings: “ourselves as we are now,” “ how we would like to be” and “how we are going to get there.”
Chad, Grace’s six year old, jumpy and aggressive at the beginning of the day, now concentrates on crayoning himself in a new house, a little boy on his feet, holding a tiny replica of that house, symbol of his hope, in his hand. In her first drawing Grace is surrounded by all four of her children – faces without bodies, mouths turned down, big tears on her cheeks. In the second drawing all five faces are inside a house, smiling. And in the third picture, the one of how she is going to get from the situation she is in to the one she hopes for, Grace, a figure with a body now, is kneeling, praying.
On a recent trip to London, I was interviewed during Depression Awareness Week about my book Unstuck’s UK release by The Guardian newspaper. The reporter was particularly interested in CMBM’s Global Trauma Relief program and our work to bring population-wide psychological healing to places around the world that are afflicted by war and natural disaster. You can read the piece here:
I’m certainly pleased that the author recognizes CMBM’s groundbreaking efforts to teach and support hundreds of thousands of people in Kosovo, Israel, Gaza, Haiti, Southern Louisiana, as well as US military returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s a shame, however, that his tone is so dismissive of integrative medicine and that he fails to recognize the fundamental importance of self-care for psychological and physical healing.
Please note that as of this writing, corrections are being made online for several factual errors, including the following:
- In Gaza, we trained 90 clinicians initially, only a few of these were “educators” (as the article states)
- CMBM now has 160 groups meeting in Gaza each week, not 48, as reported.
Beyond factual errors, though, I’m disappointed in the tone of the article. I want to emphasize that our approach to psychological trauma relief is not about “belief,” as the article repeatedly implies. It is based on hard evidence that is just as rigorous – actually more so – than most of that provided by the drug companies he seems to accept as the standard.
It is a common misconception (and prejudice) that psychological and nonpharmaceutical research is less stringent and reliable than clinical drug trials. Each of the approaches that we use, including meditation, guided imagery, biofeedback, autogenic training, yoga, self-expression in words and drawings, and movement and exercise, has a significant research base, one which demonstrates decreases in stress levels and improvement in mood. The CMBM approach combines these into a comprehensive program, and The Center for Mind-Body Medicine takes great care in scientifically researching, documenting, and publishing our findings of our approach in peer-reviewed journals. We recently published a randomized controlled trial (RCT) on our work with war traumatized children in Kosovo that shows an 80% decrease in symptoms of PTSD (read the abstract here).
This was the first RCT of any intervention with war-traumatized children, and sometime in the next few months, we will be publishing a study (in the International Journal of Stress Management) that shows similar results—80% decrease in PTSD symptoms, significant decreases in depression and hopelessness—in war-traumatized youth in Gaza. This study is particularly important because the gains that were achieved over ten weeks of once-weekly group sessions were largely maintained at seven months’ follow-up—in spite of ongoing conflict and severe economic hardship.
The point is that this approach is not alternative. It is fundamental. It makes human and scientific sense. We have an approach that works with large groups of people in developed countries as well as those ridden by disaster. It is flexible, inclusive, and culturally acceptable. And the groups in which we train caregivers can be led by anyone—teachers, and religious and community leaders, as well as health professionals; and the scientific evidence for its effectiveness continues to accumulate. And as the article states, CMBM will continue to be there to provide our program of mind-body medicine for people suffering from psychological trauma, to teach them, and help them help themselves.
Here’s the video I promised from Day 3 of the training. I think it gives you a good feel for what life in Gaza and our training is all about.
You’ll see the training participants practicing the “shaking and dancing” technique at minute :50–and then check out all the smiles.
Dear President Obama,
Before you even took office you asked us Americans to share our ideas about healthcare reform with your new Administration. Thousands of us, thrilled to be invited to participate, gathered in small groups and offered our vision to you. Now, tonight, as you address us, it’s time for you to give us back our vision, enhanced by your broader perspective, enriched by detail, unencumbered by fear.
I’m sure you and your advisors have seen the polls that have repeatedly shown that the vast majority of Americans (up to 85%) believe that our healthcare system needs to be “fundamentally changed and completely rebuilt,” and that almost equal numbers are concerned that “access to medical tests and treatment would be more limited” as a consequence of healthcare reform. The polls tell us that Americans know that our far more expensive healthcare system is significantly less effective and efficient than that of other developed countries, and that, in general, we like the doctors who care for us.
These apparent contradictions are best understood as Zen koans, paradoxes that work to boggle our minds prior to opening them to new ways of seeing and thinking. I hope tonight you will invite us to look at healthcare reform in such a new way; help us to find, beyond the fears that have been evoked, and the mind-numbing horse-trading and compromise of the legislative process, the vision that continues to animate your commitment to the health and wellbeing of all Americans.
The vast majority of Americans-not just “Democrats” or “progressives,” but all of us – are decent, compassionate people who really want all our fellow citizens to have the healthcare they need. We know that change is necessary, but we don’t know yet what’s actually being proposed, and we fear that the change that comes may take away the surety of care and the security of our relationship with our doctors.
Fear is an enormously powerful emotion-deeply embedded in our evolutionary heritage and in our central nervous system. It signals danger, mobilizes the fight or flight response and all the psychobiological mechanisms of survival. Fear, as this summer’s town halls illustrate, overwhelms our capacity for nuanced observation or even rational thought. The very thought of going to the doctor makes many people tremble. The possibility of failing health, or of a vulnerable old age, or a change in access to those who are supposed to care for us makes us deeply uneasy. When opponents of healthcare reform have used evocative and provocative words to summon up these specters, the fear factor has obviously jumped off the chart.
To our agitated minds, “rationing” means that we will likely lose the diagnostic tests which we hope will clear away threatening uncertainties, the treatments that may restore us to health, and the doctors whom we have literally trusted with our lives. “Death panels” signify that anonymous others will, in the name of some impersonal, financially motivated calculus, shorten our lives.
Outrage, reassurance, and careful reference to the actual texts of proposed legislation-the principal defensive strategies of healthcare reform proponents to date-only take the edge off our collective apprehension. Relaxed, even meditative, clear-eyed assessment of healthcare realities, active engagement of each person in responding to them, and a call to transcendent and common purpose are what will ultimately make it possible for us-individually and collectively- to move through and beyond the fears that have been dominating the discussion. We are an energetic, inventive people and once we know it is possible and even necessary, we will want to be actively, effectively engaged in our care, and in determining our destiny.
Think of the “terminally ill” mother, who “somehow” lives to see her daughter’s wedding, the firefighter who enters a burning building to save an endangered child, the soldiers who brave bullets to protect one another. Think too, of people with life-threatening or life burdening illnesses (coronary heart disease, diabetes and cancer, clinical depression and post traumatic stress disorder), who, in the therapeutic programs many of us have created around the country, are healing themselves: sharing their fears and developing strategies for dealing with the threats to their lives; regarding illness more as a challenge than a disaster; eating and exercising in more healthy ways; learning from and supporting one another. William James coined the phrase, “The moral equivalent of war.” Caring for ourselves individually and collectively is such an equivalent.
I’m asking you, really, all of us are asking you, to mobilize and inspire us to participate actively in our own healthcare; to insist that those professionals who are supposed to help us treat us respectfully, even lovingly, as active partners, not passive patients.
We don’t, for the most part, need more drugs or procedures, but rather doctors and other healthcare professionals who will spend adequate time with each of us, listening and creating partnerships, as well as writing orders and prescriptions. The powerful therapeutic effects – and cost effectiveness – of such instruction in self-care, of what some are calling “lifestyle medicine,” on outcomes of chronic illness have been repeatedly documented.
If every older person were guaranteed a physician with time to talk about life and ways to live it more fully, as well as to discuss the best ways to deal with the inevitability of death, debates about “death panels” would wither from lack of fearful fuel. If doctors spent more time looking at the excess of often clashing and contraindicated medications that older people take, much of the unnecessary suffering and fear that accompanies care in old age would disappear. As we actually learn what combinations of self-care and physician-administered therapies are most effective, for which condition, most concerns about rationing-raised now almost entirely by drug companies, which fear that their products’ flaws will be revealed- will dissolve. We need to hear clearly from you that all those individuals and institutions that profit from our pain – hospitals, insurance and pharmaceutical companies, and those of us who are doctors too – can be justified and supported only as long as they serve all of us.
Finally, you must assure all of us, left, right and center, that you and your Administration will continue to give us and our health care the careful consideration we deserve, that this present effort is only the first stage of healthcare reform; the beginning of a process of national education; and a framework for the more profound and pervasive changes that we want but are not yet sure how to achieve. Tonight, we need you again to inspire us, to give us a vision not only of how we can all be safely and effectively treated, but how we can thoughtfully, lovingly, energetically, even joyously, learn to better care for ourselves and one another.
David Leonhardt’s “prostate cancer test” (The New York Times, July 8, 2009) is a good but incomplete one for healthcare reform.
In addition to removing financial incentives for high tech intervention, we need to educate clinicians in the impartial, critical analysis of all therapeutic options, and in supporting their patients as they act on the choices they make. For 10 years, The Center for Mind-Body Medicine has trained health professionals and patient advocates to do precisely this, as “CancerGuides®.”
We need as well to realize that expensive, Draconian treatment and “watchful waiting” are not our only choices. There is, as Dean Ornish is showing with peer-reviewed studies on prostate cancer - and a number of us are doing with heart disease, diabetes, chronic pain, depression and post traumatic stress disorder – a far more promising third way. It is grounded in techniques of self-care – dietary modification, physical exercise, and mind-body approaches like meditation and yoga – and in group education and support.
This approach holds great promise for treating and preventing chronic illness of all kinds and for saving large sums of money. It should be central to healthcare reform.
A shortened version of this was published in the New York Times online Letters section on July 21, 2009.
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.
It’s stunningly, suddenly it seems to me, green here in Washington. It feels like the season and its recent holy days match the message and the mood of our work – change and hope, new growth and greater freedom, leavened by compassion and forgiveness and, for me as well, gratitude for who you are and all we’ve done together and will continue to do. “Old things are passed away…all things are new” is what it says in the New Testament. Thank you.
Dennis Jaffe, my old friend who is both a CMBM and a Saybrook Board member, got things started, and Lorne Buchman, the Saybrook President, has embraced our vision from the beginning and made sure that it infuses our partnership. The negotiations were long but we’re all happy now. I am going to be the Dean of Saybrook’s new Graduate College of Mind-Body Medicine and our program (Professional & Advanced Training Programs in Mind-Body Medicine, Supervision by faculty, plus Food As Medicine Training) is going to be required and central to the core curriculum for both Saybrook Masters and PhD degrees in Mind-Body Medicine.
This means a wonderful opportunity for CMBM to reach and teach more bright, eager, and idealistic participants, for those who want our work to be central to an advanced degree to have that opportunity, and for me (and our faculty) to help shape a graduate curriculum which will be exciting, attractive, and fun too. We’ll be getting the word out about the Saybrook degree and they’ll be telling people about Center programs. Dan Sterenchuk, our Director of Finance and Administration, is going to be working closely with me on all this. He’s thrilled and of course so am I; Dan does such an amazing job, makes everything easier and better for everyone he works with, and we enjoy our adventures together. Everyone else at The Center is really excited too.
Check out the great AP story by Karin Laub about our Gaza training–
At the Washington Post (you may have to close an ad first to read it)
Or at Google News
It’s an great take on how our mind-body skills training is an unconventional fit, but an immense help, to people within the Palestinian culture. (Great picture of me shaking & dancing up front, too (!!!))
We’re in Israel now—flying back to the States soon. More soon.
All the best,