A Cancer Quiz

Glossary of Terms

Conventional Medical Care

Holistic Care

Environmental Issues

Early Detection/Screening

Rachel's Corner

Reading List


aboutaboutcalendarcontact ussearch
graphic text
Integrating Complementary and Alternative Therapies
      Special Report by Assistant Director, Laurie Moser

"Things that cannot be cured can still heal. Curing happens at the level of the body, healing happens to the whole person at the level of the heart and soul."
                              Rachel Naomi Remen

In June 1998, I had the privilege of attending the Center for Mind-Body Medicine's Comprehensive Cancer Care Conference entitled "Integrating Complementary & Alternative Therapies." It brought together for the first time practitioners of both Western Medicine (WM) and Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) to discuss cancer care.

I expected to bring back stacks of the latest information on new healing methods for cancer, and brought along a folded down box to ship back all the "information." What I found was much deeper, more profound, and did not fit in any box.

I thought I would learn about pills to take, potions that would cure, or newfound combinations of food that would heal. Instead, I learned about belief systems and how research into miracles has brought us new ideas on how people heal. As with Rachel Naomi Remen's quote, I found that the heart of the conference discussed healing not curing.

I was most inspired by the presenters who discussed new ways to think about, meditate on and live with cancer. Doctor William Fair asked some insightful questions. "Why is cancer one of the only diseases that we are so fixated on curing? What if we treated cancer like diabetes or asthma? What if cancer was a chronic disease, which we had tools to treat the symptoms with while we also continued to live? Why do we bring out the "big guns" so to speak to "battle" cancer and misplace the life of the patient in the meantime"? His questions offer us a new way of looking at cancer.

From the insights of other researchers at the conference, we find a new paradigm about living with cancer and healing our lives. If our goal is to enhance the quality of life with cancer and not just prolong life, what difference would that make in our lives and in the way that doctors research and treat this disease?

Marilyn Schiltz, Ph.D., spoke of her work on "spontaneous remissions." Many doctors dismiss these as original misdiagnoses or statistical flukes. She suggests that if we examine the stories of those who have had spontaneous remissions, we may discover common threads. These threads may lead us to consider new ideas about how healing happens. Once these threads are defined, she said we "must question the unquestionable assumptions" and step out of the well-defined box. Already, we each hold the clues to explaining how healing happens in our own lives.

She and others have done research on these clues from cancer survivors still alive after 10 and 20 years. They ask the question, what causes survival? In this kind of narrative research they must honor the stories of the survivors and glean patterns from their stories to test later.

The three most common factors they found in these long-term survivors were:

  • Spirituality was one of the most important variables. Not any specific religion, but just that they had a belief system and faith that there was some form of higher authority.
  • Relationships and Social Support were also vital to survivorship. They had people who they could turn to for support and people who counted on them in return.
  • Transformation/Transcendence were also key. They were able to take fear and transform it into hope. They took their own mortality and reframed their experience to see new possibilities.

In her research she met cancer survivor, Maureen Redl, who now works with "story circles" nationwide. In listening to people's stories, Maureen has found hope and healing along with new ways of experiencing cancer. She says, "If we only look for a cure and miss the experience of what illness brings to us, we would have missed the point."

In summary, each person's experience and belief system is what matters in their path towards healing. That path may include death or life, but the experience is all we each have. In Redl's video "Voices of Healing," one of the people from her story circles puts it best, "illness is just one path to coming to terms with the age-old questions of who am I and why am I here."

So with my box still folded down, I came home not with the latest cure, but with hope. And a sense of belief in the power of each of us as individuals to heal, whatever the healing means. Laurie Moser *If you are interested in complete notes on the conference, visit the Center for Body Mind Medicine's Web site at www.cmbm.org. They have transcripts for the whole conference posted there.


Copyright Women's Cancer Resource Center 2003. All rights reserved.