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-healing from “incurable” diseases

Examples of spontaneous remission, in which a supposedly incurable condition recovers without treatment, can be found across the whole diagnostic spectrum. Having seen a number of cases over the years, both among my patients and clients when I was in practice and in my personal circle, I often wonder why occasional patients recover while most others with similar prognostic features do not. In orthodox medical systems, concerned more with illness than with health, these cases are often lost to follow-up and do not attract the interest they seem to merit. They may even be dismissed on the grounds that the original diagnosis was wrong.

Some reports do get published in medical journals, and mostly relate to cases of advanced cancer which were expected to be fatal. These accounts usually focus on biological factors rather than psychological ones. Books for general readers based on a more holistic study of individual patients include Remarkable Recovery by Caryle Hirshberg and Marc Ian Barasch, and Radical Remission by Kelly Turner, and there are many online descriptions.

Sometimes the unexpected recovery takes place for no apparent reason, but sometimes the patients in question firmly believe it is due to specific factors such as a change in diet, a more fulfilling lifestyle, a spiritual awakening, the power of prayer, or cultivation of the “higher” qualities of forgiveness, gratitude and love. Perhaps what these share in common is a sense of taking control of one’s own health, the firm intention to heal, and a firm belief that healing can happen. Such things are largely beyond the scope of the statistical analysis and controlled studies required in “evidence-based medicine”.

Episodic conditions such as asthma, migraine, epilepsy and autoimmune disorders can wax and wane for no apparent reason. Again, more mainstream research is focused on what triggers a flare-up than on why many sufferers have periods of good health in between, or even recover completely. On a personal note, since I reached my mid-60s my migraines have become much less frequent and severe. One explanation is the biological one that I am finally growing out of them. The prevalence of migraine is known to be lower in older people than younger ones and some sufferers, though sadly not all, experience fewer and less severe attacks in later life. This may be because the brain becomes less sensitive with age, or a result of hormonal changes.

Another explanation is psychological. Going back to cancer, ever since reading Laurence LeShan’s inspiring book Cancer as a turning point I have been interested in the idea that self-healing from this or any other disease can occur through what he called “singing your own song” – finding a purpose and joy in life, what is sometimes called being in a higher vibrational state. This makes intuitive sense to me and looking back over the years, during periods when I have been absorbed in some truly fulfilling project – most recently, a return to my childhood passion for writing fiction (see my Amazon page) – my migraines have been less of a problem. Since LeShan’s book was written, many researchers have studied the mechanisms which might underlie mind-body connections such as this. The complex science is well explained in several recent popular books, for example You are the placebo by Joe Dispenza.

Beliefs and expectations have been shown to play a role in predicting the prognosis of coronary heart disease and the same is probably true for any other condition, so although I realise that my severe migraines could come back at any time, I prefer not to think in those terms. The negative messages so often delivered by well-meaning clinicians, such as “there is no cure for x” and “it’s bound to get worse at some stage”, can destroy hope and are not helpful. Recovery may be unlikely, and can never be promised, but as one of my teachers in the holistic approach used to say “Anything can be healed”.