Book review “Cured: the life-changing science of spontaneous healing” by Jeffrey Rediger

Cases of the phenomenon variously called “spontaneous healing” or “spontaneous remission” or “remarkable recovery” are sometimes reported in the medical literature, usually in relation to advanced cancer. They are probably not quite so rare as followup statistics suggest, either because sceptical doctors presume that the original diagnosis was wrong, or because the patients concerned have stopped attending hospital clinics. Jeffrey Rediger, a physician and psychiatrist who is on the faculty of Harvard Medical School, has spent fifteen years studying this topic by interviewing patients and visiting healing centres. In his book, case histories are interwoven with summaries of the latest research into the body’s defences against disease.

The library copy of Cured on which I based this review is subtitled “the life-changing science of spontaneous healing” by Jeffrey Rediger but the version on the Amazon page, presumably more recent, has “the power of our immune system and the mind-body connection” by Jeff Rediger. Although I don’t know why the subtitle was changed (or the author’s name shortened) it strikes me that the term “spontaneous” could be misleading. Most unexpected, apparently miraculous, recoveries from a disease that had been considered incurable do not happen out of the blue, but after the patients concerned have taken active steps to reclaim their health.

Early chapters focus mainly on physical aspects, with detailed discussion about how to optimise nutrition, and support the functioning of the immune and nervous systems. The later ones have a more obvious “mind-body” emphasis with topics such as the placebo response, faith healing and prayer, the power of love, and what he calls “healing your identity”.

This last aspect may be of crucial importance. It builds on the work of early researchers such as Lawrence Le Shan, whose book Cancer as a Turning Point influenced my own choice of psycho-oncology as a career, and echoes the message of more recent books such as Remarkable Recovery by Caryle Hirshberg and Marc Barasch. Many of the patients described in these books made a decision, consciously or not, to take control of their lives and “rewrite their stories”. This often involved leaving a toxic relationship or an unsatisfying job, reviving an undeveloped talent or ambition, and most importantly making “deep mental and spiritual changes”. An essential feature was being true to themselves rather than conforming to outside expectations, and following their own path. This might require courage and faith, and the discipline to “burn their boats” to prevent a lapse back to the previous way of life. Some became whole-heartedly committed to particular healing practices. These were very varied, ranging from a strict ketogenic diet to daily immersion in yoga or meditation, suggesting that faith in the chosen modality whatever it may be is the crucial factor in its effectiveness.

This psychological picture does not fit every case. Regression from cancer following an acute infection with high fever is well documented, and must have a biological basis rather than a psycho-spiritual one. Some cases of remarkable recovery do appear spontaneous, because no explanation at all can be found.

Dr Rediger provides plenty of information and guidance for those seeking to prevent disease, or to maximise their chances of recovery from an existing condition, and the case histories are inspiring. He rightly avoids recommending particular approaches, and he acknowledges that there are no guarantees. Plenty of patients “do all the right things” and still succumb to their disease; spontaneous healing remains to some extent a mystery. This is a valuable book, though perhaps rather too long and detailed to be easily digested by someone dealing with a serious illness. Future editions could be made more accessible by adding an index, and summaries at the end of each chapter.

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Jennifer Barraclough, originally from England and now living in New Zealand, is a retired doctor and a writer of medical and fiction books. A list can be found on her author pages: https://www.amazon.com/Jennifer-Barraclough/e/B001HPXGZI (US) and https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jennifer-Barraclough/e/B001HPXGZI (UK).

Self-responsibility for healing?

Many self-help teachers claim that ‘you are 100% responsible for everything in your life’ and that ‘you create your own reality’ through your emotions, thoughts, beliefs and behaviour.  Though not everyone would accept such statements as literally true, there is no doubt that a person’s mental outlook makes a huge difference to the way they perceive and deal with their world.

Research studies show that those who believe they have a large measure of choice and control over their own lives tend to be healthier and happier than those with a more passive approach. This works through a combination of better self-care, with diet and exercise for example, and direct mind-body relationships. Self-responsibility is a key feature in most cases of remarkable recovery from cancer or other serious disease. But there is a fine dividing line between self-responsibility and self-blame, which makes people feel guilty about having become sick or failed to recover. After all an illness may be at least partly due to factors which are beyond personal control, such as genetic makeup or exposure to passive smoking. In many cases the cause is not known.

This said, a sense of self-responsibility can certainly enable improved coping with difficulties, as illustrated by the story of one recent client of mine. In the past few years she had faced huge challenges including the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, divorce, loss of her home and the need to start supporting herself financially in her late 50s. Not surprisingly she often felt low and anxious, and to make things worse had fallen into a pattern of feeling sorry for herself and looking on the negative side of things. For example rather than giving herself credit for having completed a training course and obtained a first job in her chosen field, she continually complained about the irritations at her place of work.

According to the Law of Attraction, if we focus on what is wrong with ourselves and our lives, we are likely to draw even more unwanted things into our experience. Negative feelings are a natural response to adversity and it is helpful to acknowledge and express them. It is not helpful to get stuck in them. Looking for positive aspects to appreciate in the present, and imagining more of these in the future, can be the key to turning them around.

I gave this client a mixture of several Bach flower remedies to deal with different aspects of her case but the one most relevant to today’s post is Willow. Dr Edward Bach recommended this remedy ‘for those who have suffered adversity and misfortune and find these difficult to accept without complaint or resentment … feel that they have not deserved so great a trial, that it was unjust … ‘ The Willow remedy helps such people to move away from the victim role and take control of their own destiny.

When my client came for followup she looked transformed for the better. She had made a shift towards self-responsibility by using both visualisation exercises and practical actions to further her long-term goal of developing her own business. Meanwhile she was being proactive about improving her present work conditions, and balancing her lifestyle with some new leisure activities. She wanted to take an active part in selecting the contents of her next bottle of remedies, which is to be encouraged with this therapy because according to the Bach Foundation’s code of practice, clients ‘remain at all times responsible for their own well-being’.

Bach flower remedies in cancer care

At the beginning of my first career as a medical doctor I worked for several years in a radiotherapy department, and later came to specialise in psycho-oncology. Now as a Bach flower practitioner, though I see clients with a whole variety of problems, I still have a special interest in the psychological aspects of cancer. The main role of the Bach flower remedies in cancer care is to ease emotional distress caused by the diagnosis, the symptoms and the treatment. They are not an alternative treatment for the cancer itself.

One client who came to see me recently has a diagnosis of secondary breast cancer, and quite understandably has often felt despondent about her situation. After her first consultation with me she wrote: ‘My own path is one of deteriorating health and ongoing courses of chemo. I accept “where I am” but recently faced starting a new, stronger chemo regime and became rather melancholy. I decided that over and above medical treatment I needed to keep my own energies in balance in order to cope well and enjoy the present.’ I recommended a mixture of flower remedies including Gentian, which helps to restore faith for those who are feeling disheartened by setbacks in life.

My client’s report continues ‘Imagine my delight around five days after starting the remedies to realise that the melancholy feelings had completely lifted. By the first day of my new chemo regime I was able to hold my head high and present at the appointment in comfort and with confidence…I am convinced that the flowers have helped beyond measure’.

Many of the other remedies from the total of 38 may be indicated in cancer care settings, sometimes for relatives and staff as well as patients themselves. Examples would include Mimulus for courage in the face of understandable fears; Red Chestnut to calm anxiety on behalf of others; Star of Bethlehem to provide comfort at times of shock or sorrow.

Some clients want to go to deeper levels; a cancer diagnosis can be the impetus to change a longstanding psychological imbalance such as a chronically pessimistic outlook, or a tendency to suppress feelings and desires in order to please other people. The flowers can help in such cases too.

Although the question of whether having a positive mindset improves the medical prognosis for cancer is still debated, it will certainly improve general well-being and make it easier to cope.

Up to six flowers, selected for each individual according to how they feel at the present time, can be combined in the same mixture. The remedies themselves have no side effects, but they are made up with a small amount of brandy as preservative and although the alcohol concentration is miniscule there is a theoretical risk of interaction with some prescription drugs, so please check with your doctor if they are safe for you to use.

Further Reading: Barraclough, J (ed) 2007. Enhancing Cancer Care: Complementary Therapy and Support. Oxford University Press, Oxford.