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Who's Responsible

Who's responsible?

A woman came into my office lamenting about her life choices, stating that she did not love herself enough to make healthy decisions about her professional career, personal relationships, or parenting style. Additionally, she felt responsible for initiating her breast cancer because her life was filled with psychosocial stress that had most likely suppressed her immune system, which in turn allowed her body to ignore her breast cancer cells and consequently they thrived. They grew under her body's radar without resistance from her immune system. She was adamant that she was responsible for her illness in almost every dimension.

There is ample evidence that some sort of stress reduction can influence cancer as a whole, but it's a desperate leap to even consider that controlling stress can significantly influence and even cure cancer.

There are an over abundant number of advocates who for one reason or another promulgate the damaging overstatement that psychological health relationships are absolutely responsible for disease in general, with some focusing on cancer as their special personal disease-ending crusade. Not only do we hear these ideas from medical intuitives, mystics, and spiritual and religious authorities, we also hear it from influential health practitioners whose medical degrees appear to lend credibility to their over-the-top claims.

Years ago, I read a best-selling book entitled Love, Medicine and Miracles (New York: Harper & Row, 1986) written by a surgeon on Yale's medical staff named Bernie S. Siegel, MD. He theorized that the best way to stimulate the immune system is through love, and that miraculous healing happens to patients who have the courage to love. Yet love itself is an enormously complex issue related to the human mind, often misunderstood by most if not all of us who have tried to love, whatever love is.

Several years ago, my wife Lisa succumbed to breast cancer. She was one of the bravest and most loving people I have ever known. After rereading Dr. Siegel's book, it appeared all she had to do to overcome her cancer was to overcome her attitude and problems, and submit to love and self-awareness with an emphasis on spiritual or perhaps religious security. Miracles would just start germinating everywhere in her life, especially in her garden of disease and terminal illness.

According to Siegel, cancer and other severe and devastating diseases are curable if the patient adopts the correct combination of attributes. If they do not, they themselves are responsible for having an incurable disease and dying from it. Siegel makes the bold statement: “There are no incurable diseases, only incurable people.” There is no question that there is scientifically sound evidence supporting direct associations between severe disease and individual psycho-social relationships of sick patients, but to assert that if a terminally ill person gets their spiritual act together he or she will become cured is absolute rubbish. Regardless of who states the assertion.

This entire construction sounds similar to views held in the 14th and 15th century by churches. During the Middle Ages, it was common for Priests administering to the sick to believe illness was a punishment apportioned by God for sin. Siegel goes so far as to suggest that illness is not God's will, but is a result of our deviation from God's will; and that it is the absence of spirituality that leads to health related difficulties. I take his statement to mean that all serious illness is what you get when you deviate from God's will even though we cannot assuredly know what God's will is from time to time. Sound familiar? There are still a number of important mysteries surrounding the onset of terminal illness and its course in each individual patient, but I find no comfort in reciting medical etiology that was embraced by medieval peasants.

What saddens me most about Siegel's bestselling book is that people did not read it and recognize it as a reconstruction of historically ancient benign gabble. Instead they internalized it, and denied all of the scientific advances that have come to light as influencing factors in the onset of cancer and catastrophic diseases: environmental exposures, alternations in stem cell integrity, hormone disturbances, dietary influences, chronic active infections and physical trauma. All of these have been shown to impact our public and personal health. A study in 2001 found that hundreds of woman afflicted with breast cancer cited stress as the most significant attribute to the onset of their disease. I have no doubt that stress had in some way predisposed them to cancer, but I seriously doubt it was the most significant factor in the onset of their disease.

Every male child cannot grow up to be an NFL player regardless of his childhood dreams. We cannot end all war by holding midnight candlelight prayer vigils. We cannot end all disease by visualizing a world free of illness and suffering. We do not contract, to develop our illness, with some obscure divine power before we are born. God does not mete out cancer as a punishment for sin. And every severe disease is not exclusively caused by stress. The corollary is also not true: we cannot cure our worst diseases by merely finding strength that we never had, connecting to God in some personal way, or choosing to love everything more than we ever intended. The Truth remains true, love is conditional, knowing God is an incredibly personal experience, and stress is a part of our everyday life. There may be effective ways to reduce our reactions to stress, but finding peace within will not cure terminal illness.

Those who promote this New Age snake oil should be embarrassed, not honored. I am ashamed that some physicians profit from such a distorted and condemning view of serious sickness. There are situations and reactions that each of us need to own, but our response to stress is not solely responsible for our cancers, heart disease, or other chronic ailments and disabilities.

Posted by Amanda Sanders at 9:10 AM
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