A physician who has studied spontaneous remissions for fifteen years claims that the science of self healing could have a profound effect on patients suffering from terminal illnesses.
Dr Jeffrey Rediger, a world-leading Harvard medic from Boston, psychiatrist and theologian, has interviews hundreds of patients that have experienced ‘medical miracles’, including a retiree diagnosed with cancer and given two months to live, and who overcame her cerebral palsy, whilst her sibling did not.
Hesitant to classify these instances as ‘flukes,’ the physician took a deeper look at the lifestyle changes, new habits and attitudes patients had adopted at the time were they seemed to ‘cure themselves’, in his new book Cured, published by Penguin Random House.
In the book he explains that self-confidence, how we perceive ourselves and how other perceive us influences our chances of remission.
Dr Jeff Rediger, pictured, a world-leading Harvard medic, psychiatrist and theologian, has interviews hundreds of patients that had experienced these spontaneous remissions, from a retiree who diagnosed with cancer and given two months to live to girl who was able to overcome her cerebral palsy
‘If you perceive yourself as “sick” or “ill” or surrounded by people who perceive you this way, how much longer and harder might your road to recovery be,’ Dr Rediger writes in his chapter You Are Not Your Illness.
The chapter follows the case of twins who were born with some form of cerebral palsy which affected their walking.
Cerebral palsy is caused by development issues in the womb or oxygen deprivation during birth, and affects the body’s muscles, movement and coordination, an is incurable.
However, Dr Rediger explains how one twin, Karen, managed to overcome most of the debilitating effects of the condition she was born with, while her sister did not.
The twins, two girls from Ohio, had the same symptoms but very different attitude towards their cerebral palsy.
Karen had deep difficulties walking due to the fact her heels did not touch the ground, and she struggled to extend her legs.
Karen and her sister visited a ‘faith healer’ named Dr Nemeh, who worked close to their town.
There, Karen let the doctor examine and treat her, while her sister refused.
‘Over the course of a few visits, she began to experience a shift in how she felt in her body,’ Dr Rediger writes in the book.
Dr Rediger’s book Cured is published by Penguin Random House and available for purchase
‘Some people describe feeling overheated or strange after Dr Nemeh lays his hands on their bodies; some vibrate, some faint.
‘Karen felt a surge of energy, leaped out of her chair and ran out of the room. She’d never run anywhere in her life before,’ he added.
Meanwhile, her sister, who was in a wheelchair, had witness all the sessions, but told Rediger she did not feel’worthy’ of Dr Nemeh’s attention.
‘She was certain that any attempt she made to improve would fail,’ he writes in the book, ‘she felt too defective and, therefore, unworthy.’
This is where Dr Rediger explains that the perception of our illness could influence our capacity to heal.
‘If other people see you as sick or damaged, it can make you feel sick or damaged,’ he writes.
He also points out that our emotions also have an influence on how we experience pain.
He names studies that have shown that we feel more pain when someone tries to hurt us on purpose than by accident.
Can a positive attitude protect against Alzheimer’s?
Dreading growing old may raise your risk of Alzheimer’s, according to a 2015 study from Yale School of Public Health.
Middle-aged people who view ageing as a handicap are more likely to have dementia-like changes to their brain decades later.
It is thought the stress generated by such thoughts and fears eats away at the brain over time.
The US researchers said while there has been a lot of focus on how a healthy diet can help keep the mind young, we should also consider the benefits of positive thinking.
Dr Becca Levy analysed data 74 men and women collected from when they were middle-aged until they died.
All were healthy at the start of the study and aged mainly in their late 50s and early 60s.
First, they filled in a survey designed to assess their attitude to ageing.
Questions included whether they considered the elderly as absent-minded or grouchy and whether people become less useful as they get older.
Twenty years later, they started to have annual scans that measured the size of the hippocampus, brain’s memory hub.
The brain normally shrinks with age, but the hippocampus shrivelled three times as quickly in those negative views of ageing two decades before.
Further evidence came from examinations of the brain done after death.
These tests, which were carried out an average of 28 years after the study started, showed those who held negative views of ageing when younger had higher levels of two proteins that are hallmarks of Alzheimer’s.
The finding held when other factors such as age, education and overall health were taken into account.
The same applies to the notion of ageing. Dr Rediger claims that: ‘negative thoughts about aging put you at risk of developing Alzheimer’s.’
‘Researchers found that the chronic stress generated by “negative self-perceptions wears down the hippocampus, the small, sea-horse-shaped portion or the brain that is responsible for you memories, emotions and even the beating of your heart.’
By comparison, studies at Harvard and Yale’s School of Public Health have shown that a truly positive attitude towards ageing improves health and extends life expectancy, he writes.
Dr Rediger gives plenty of examples of how an individual’s psychological well-being can influence their remission.
He follows the story of a patient named Daniel, whose case was monitored by doctors in the 1950s.
Daniel struggled with social interactions, and was the product of being raised in a very religious family,
He wanted to be a pastor but didn’t feel worth of the profession, and he was in a rocky relationship with a woman he held at a distance because he had strong feelings of guilt regarding sex and sin.
By the time he graduated university, therapy was not bringing him any solace, and he hated his life, Dr Rediger writes.
In January 1959, aged 26, Daniel was diagnosed with embryonal cell carcinoma of the testes.
He went through an operation to remove the tumour, but it only made him more depressed, and four months after the surgery, the cancer had come back more aggressively, and spread throughout his body, from metastases in his chest to tumours visible on his neck.
His prognosis was as bad as it could be, with no chance of survival, and weeks to live, Dr Rediger explains.
At the same time, Daniel’s therapist asked him what he wanted to do with the time he had left to live, and the cancer patient replied he wanted to get married and be ordained.
With a growing sense of clarity, he put in the work to be ordained and started to plan a wedding with the woman he had been dating, with whom the relationship had improved, and tied the knot in July, six months after his initial diagnosis.
At the same time, the tumours on his neck grew smaller, and within days of the ceremony, they had vanished completely, prompting his doctors to order x-rays.
Exams showed that the tumours in his lymphatic system had gone completely, and that the metastases in his chest cavity had begun to shrink.
‘They could think of no explanation; the only treatment he’d undergone since discovering the extent of the cancer had been palliative,’ Dr Regider writes.
In August 1959, the cancer had disappeared completely, and there was no evidence of illness in the pastor’s body.
‘The ups and downs of Daniel’s aggressive cancer mirrored his psychological state at every turn, raising many important questions,’ Dr Rediger goes on.
He also cites more recent cases to underline his theory, including that of Claire Haser, a retiree from Oregon.
In 2008, Claire was diagnosed with the most aggressive and lethal form of pancreatic cancer, called adenocarcinoma, which is known to progress quickly.
‘A diagnosis of pancreatic adenocarcinoma is a death sentence,’ Dr Rediger writes. ‘The questions is not if you will die from the disease, but when.’
The only form of treatment possible is a surgical procedure called a Whipple, which consists in removing part of her pancreas along with her gallbladder, parts of her small intestine and possibly some part of the stomach and spleen.
The heavy procedure can have a number of painful complications which could overtime turn into more health issues such as diabetes nor anemia.
After speaking of the side effects with her physician and researching the procedure, Claire decided not to go through with the surgery, accepting she might be experiencing the last moments of her life.
‘I decided to just let nature take its course,’ she told Dr Rediger, ‘I decided to live with as much zest and happiness as I could for however long I had left.’
Five years later, in 2013, Claire was admitted to the hospital for reasons unrelated to her cancer, which required a CT scan of her abdomen.
‘Though the doctors weren’t looking for it specifically, her pancreas was visualized on the scan, and it was clean. Where there had once been tumour, there was none,’ Dr Rediger writes.
In spite of the amazing story of Claire and Daniel’s recoveries, Dr Regider writes that spontaneous remissions are never fully investigated.
‘We classify people like Claire as “flukes” and “outliers” and simply accept the narrative that they are explainable.’
‘We don’t know how to explain them, we shy away from publishing them for fear of professional ridicule, and we don’t repeat them to the patients we see who are suffering from those very same diseases,’ he writes, explains health professionals don’t want to give patients ‘false hopes.’
Cured, by Dr Jeff Rediger is published by Penguin Random House.