Beating All Odds
How people with remarkable recoveries from incurable illness are the flagship for a new science of health
Happiness by Clare Elsaesser
Since 2003, I have examined the medical records for over 100 survivors of incurable and fatal illnesses, and what I’ve discovered is patterns and principles behind these miracles. In other words, there is nothing spontaneous about what are called spontaneous remissions from illness—nothing miraculous about miracle healings. This realization has changed me, not only as a person, but also as a physician and as a theologian.
What remains astonishing to me is how little we have used science to study these individuals. Documented stories of remarkable recoveries—modern stories supported by irrefutable medical evidence—are not flukes or anecdotes in the same way that the accomplishments of great athletes like Serena Williams or Michael Jordan are not flukes and anecdotes. Looking back, when Bob Beamon smashed the Olympic long jump record by nearly two feet at the 1968 Olympics, other athletes and scientists immediately tried to figure out how he did it and how to beat it—even though breaking that new record took almost 23 years. Yet when something similar happens in health care—when someone who has been essentially condemned to death by the medical system suddenly gets better—it’s as if the system is embarrassed. Too often, these remarkable individuals are seen as threats to the system rather than inspirations. Too often these cases are dismissed without examination.
“Spontaneous” means “without cause,” but the truth is that we mostly haven’t looked for the cause. When we do look closely at these individuals, what we find is great courage, a strong work ethic, and a huge capacity for change and growth. If you stop to think about it, these are people we should most want to study. They have stumbled on golden keys to health and healing that we should all want to understand.
Although I am a physician, I should say at the outset that I began examining these amazing stories not to heal a disease or to extend life—we all die at some point—but because I needed to know what is most true about living. I was raised on a farm with an Amish background far removed from common cultural traditions, and I saw firsthand how religion isn’t always associated with life and vitality. I had a lot of questions and skepticism about spiritual truth in general. However, I decided that if spiritual or mental principles exist that are true enough to heal physical bodies from “incurable” diseases, then perhaps these are universal principles of life and vitality that I could trust.
Do psychiatrists have trust issues? Absolutely! In retrospect, I see this work as a kind of empirical theology.
Many of the people I interviewed who survived “incurable” diseases continued to use the best that Western medicine has to offer, and I believe this is generally the best policy. I selected Claire’s story because there’s no way to attribute even a portion of her recovery to normal medical treatment or to wonder if she was just “lucky.”
Diagnosed by biopsy in 2008 with the most deadly form of pancreatic cancer, Claire was told that she was going to die. Chemotherapy and radiation could add a few months to an otherwise brutal march toward death, but could not save her. Claire didn’t reject scientific medicine: She made a commitment to accept truth in whatever form it arrived, and sought to combine scientific evidence with her own deep commitment to self-knowledge as she looked for a path. But after perusing endless, bleak websites and struggling to come to grips with what was facing her, Claire decided not to follow any of the recommended medical treatments. She made this choice for a clear reason: If she had only a few months to live, she would rather focus on the quality of her life and on time with the people she loved, rather than spending her last months in waiting rooms with other dying people.
Claire says she initially felt frozen with the prospect of impending death. As she began to allow herself to feel her way into and through her fears, she began to realize at a deep level that if she wanted to beat the illness, she needed, not to chase a cure, but “to change her relationship with herself.”
What a statement! What does it mean?
This change in perception seems to be the most important key to her healing, and the reason why Claire now views her illness as a great gift—a gift that changed the way she sees and experiences herself at every moment. Claire did many things to promote her healing, all of which deserve a much longer discussion, but here’s the basic list. (If you want to see what Claire did for yourself, see her website, livingwithpancreaticcancer.com.)
She eliminated processed foods from her diet.
She forgave others as well as herself (not easy!).
She dealt with repressed feelings from the past.
She kept a regular journal of her feelings.
She did energy work.
She attended workshops.
She listened to meditation CDs.
She considered at a deep level whether and to what degree she wanted to live.
Although many—if not all—of the steps that she took are important, the last step is particularly critical. As a physician, I often hear people say they want to live, but closer examination often reveals a subconscious wish or willingness to have it be over.
Here is what I believe is the real crux of healing: We live in a world where it’s easy to conclude that there’s something not good enough about who we are. At some point it’s just easier to believe the bad stuff: I’m not good enough or I’m too much; either I’m not pretty or successful enough, too fat, with too little education, money, or opportunities, or I did that when I should have done something else. The incessant drip of insults, small and large, over the years creates a negative self-concept rooted in fear rather than love—and these insults are matched and buttressed by religious, parental, and educational teachings until finally they become our own. We must be who we appear to be.
More than anything else, what I am learning from individuals like Claire is that we are not at all whom we appear to be. The masks we wear both reveal and conceal who we really are. And the most remarkable accomplishments of the soul don’t always spring from the ones with the degrees and the opportunities— far from it.
I believe that all of us are souls, walking around, not at all whom we appear to be, who are on a journey to wake up to the dignity and magnificence within us. The realization that we can heal “incurable” illnesses by seeing that which is perfectly imperfect, whole, and complete about us may be so important that I have begun to conclude that perhaps we suffer only to the degree that we don’t get what is magnificent and right about who we are.
This is a change in perception so significant that I’ve started to wonder if something in us begins to heal the moment we realize that we’ve been seeing the world and ourselves upside down. It is astonishing to me that the body seems to follow this change in perception. Perhaps the physical diagnosis is not the real illness. Perhaps the real illness is the fear that we are not good enough as we are. Perhaps we heal by seeing— and experiencing—the magnificent truth of who we are and integrating that large truth into our lives.
Healing Through Your Own Magnificence
It was a huge step forward when early scientists separated illness from religion. Not only did doing so make it more difficult to see illness as a sin or the judgment of an angry god, it also helped early scientists distinguish the signs and symptoms of one illness from another and to establish a taxonomy of disease. What an amazing science arose from this! Yet it was a science of disease rather than a science of health. The problem is that we become what we focus on. If you want to help a person with diabetes or alcohol dependence, you help them more by helping them get a great life, built on what is right and magnificent about them, rather than focusing too directly on the disease. When we fill the deeper part of us with something higher, or with love, we don’t need to try to get love from food, alcohol, or something else.
A woman who recovered from metastatic melanoma recently told me that she was shocked at the power of starting a gratitude journal. Is there something in that for you? What would help you see yourself without judgment and with compassion and respect? And to build a life of courage, dignity, love, and purpose?
So if you are dealing with an illness or an addiction, ask yourself: What is it that your soul is trying to learn? What would it take to change your relationship with yourself? You cannot think yourself into health, but what you can do is realize that you have lived with a profound misunderstanding of who you are, and that perhaps it’s time to take off the old pair of glasses and see yourself and the world differently, with compassion and a lack of judgment. There’s nothing wrong with you that can’t be fixed by what’s right about you.
Jeffrey Rediger, MD, MDiv, is a psychiatrist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School, and is the Medical Director of McLean SE at McLean Hospital. He also has a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary. Read his blog at medicineofhopeandpossibility.com. View his recent TEDx Talk here: youtube.com/watch?v=8mjVHIB0FhI