Spontaneous Recovery –
The Body’s Power to Heal
from Cancer and Chronic Disease
The following is a transcript of this video.
“Natural forces within us are the true healers of disease.”
Modern medicine has achieved remarkable results. Its ability to save people from ailments which a mere generation ago would have led to an untimely death, borders on the miraculous. But when it comes to chronic illness modern medicine has its limits. Sometimes the treatment is worse than the disease. Sometimes the treatment only provides temporary relief from symptoms. Sometimes there is no treatment. Fortunately, modern medicine does not possess a monopoly on our ability to heal as the body possesses innate powers that can heal many chronic health issues. In this video we explore the body’s natural capacity to heal and look the role self-transformation plays in promoting these healing abilities.
“. . .health and illness are not random states in a particular body or body part. They are, in fact, an expression of an entire life lived. . .”
Gabor Mate, The Myth of Normal
Our body is constantly at work healing itself. White blood cells clean out wounds and combat infections, fibroblast cells create new tissue to repair ruptures to our skin and flesh, new bone cells are created to fuse fractures, and the immune system can identify and neutralize all sorts of harmful pathogens. But the body can do more than just heal from wounds, infections, fractures, and viral and bacterial illnesses, it also has the ability to heal itself from virtually all forms of chronic disease as is evidenced by the phenomenon of spontaneous recovery.
A spontaneous recovery occurs when an individual is unexpectedly cured from a disease in a way that cannot be explained through the paradigm of modern medicine. Absent any intervention by doctors, without surgery or pharmaceutical drugs, some people heal from cancer, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, Chron’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and other forms of chronic illness. For example, with regards to cancer, it is well-established that tumors can shrink in size, or even disappear absent surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation, or as was written in the medical journal Oncology Letters:
“. . .malignant tumors as well as metastases, of almost all histological types, can regress spontaneously although certain histological types regress more frequently than others.”
Sante Basso Ricci & Ugo Cerchiari, Spontaneous regression of malignant tumors: Importance of the immune system and other factors
A spontaneous recovery does not necessarily occur suddenly, or without cause, rather as Caryle Hirshberg and Marc Barasch explain in their book Remarkable Recovery:
“The original meaning of the word “spontaneous” (derived from the Latin sponte, “of free will”), has little to do with the suddenness, rapidity, or immediate change without cause which contemporary usage implies. The word, the dictionary reveals, originally had more to do with something occurring due to a “native internal proneness,” a tendency to “act by its own impulse, energy or natural law.” It implies a natural process that arises from within.”
Caryle Hirshberg & Marc Barasch, Remarkable Recovery
While only a small fraction of individuals with a chronic disease will spontaneously recover, and while most spontaneous recoveries go unreported, there are still many cases of this phenomenon documented in the medical literature. For example, in Mind Over Medicine the physician Lissa Rankin points to a case of a man suffering from pancreatic cancer, one of the most devastating forms of this disease. This man was scheduled for surgery, but had a heart attack due to a pre-surgical procedure which forced delay of the surgery and as Rankin writes:
“Within four weeks of his heart attack, while he was recovering from the cardiac event, the symptoms and laboratory findings of his pancreatic cancer began to resolve. Four months after the initial diagnosis, a CT scan revealed that his tumor had disappeared completely – without surgery, chemotherapy, or any other cancer treatment. Four other case studies in the medical literature report “spontaneous” remissions from inoperable pancreatic cancers.” – Lissa Rankin, Mind Over Medicine
An article titled Notes on Spontaneous Regression of Cancer examines twelve cases of spontaneous remissions and tries to understand what life changes may have led to these recoveries. One of the most remarkable cases involved a patient with a grade four brain tumour:
“Dr. Maurice Green, as an intern, observed the treatment of a physician with glioblastoma multiform [grade 4 brain tumour]. The operation was unsuccessful. The patient, however, had a regression rather than progression of symptoms… Eventually he left the hospital completely well, indicating only that he felt differently about life after facing death ….” -Charles Weinstock, Notes on spontaneous regression of cancer. Journal of the American Society of Psychosomatic Dentistry & Medicine
Examples of spontaneous recoveries are not limited to cancer; they span the spectrum of chronic diseases, from cardiovascular and autoimmune diseases to neurological disorders, blood disorders, and skin conditions. There is even the mysterious Lazarus phenomenon which is the unassisted, or spontaneous recovery, from cardiac arrest after a patient has been declared dead and all attempts at resuscitation have ended.
If the body can bring itself back from the brink of death and cure itself from diseases believed to be terminal, then its capacity for healing is far greater than most of us realize. Our goal should be to harness this power to help us heal from chronic ailments or to prevent their onset. For even if we turn to conventional medicine to treat whatever ails us, when our body is optimized to heal the efficacy of such treatments will improve.
Research into spontaneous recovery has yet to unveil a universal formula or specific set of steps to unlock the body’s vast healing potentials, as many factors influence this capacity, and individual needs vary. Those who have studied numerous cases of spontaneous recovery, however, suggest that there are recurring patterns and shared contributing factors that offer potential insights into how we can prime our body to heal.
On the one hand there are the physical factors that contribute to healing, these include changes to diet, regular exercise, improving the quality of sleep, and the breaking of addictions to drugs or alcohol. Factors related to the health of the body are crucially important to our ability to heal. But there is a psychological factor that stands above these in rank of importance, and this is the willingness to undergo a self-transformation.
Self-transformation is critical to the process of physical healing for two main reasons. Firstly, it is often only when we transform our sense of self that we develop the courage, discipline, and desire to change the physical habits that are thwarting our ability to heal. Secondly, self-transformation helps correct for the unhealthy patterns of thought, belief, and emotion, that through the body-mind connection, keep us locked in a state of sickness. Many of these thought and emotional patterns operate below the threshold of conscious awareness and are the product of our conditioning, bit it an upbring in an unhealthy environment or years of conforming to the sickness of modern society. If we free ourselves from this conditioning through self-transformation, we free ourselves from the damaging physiological responses that are dictated by our maladaptive thoughts, behaviours, and emotions.
The literature on spontaneous recovery supports the assertion that self-transformation facilitates healing, for example in the book Cured Jeffrey Rediger who examined hundreds of cases of spontaneous recoveries, writes:
“People who experienced spontaneous healings disrupted the default mode, got out of that rut, saw and experienced themselves in an entirely new way. . .” -Jeffrey Rediger, Cured
Or as Caryle Hirshberg and Marc Barasch write in Remarkable Recovery:
“. . .it has been noted by a number of researchers that extraordinary healing is often preceded by profound personal change, sometimes even what seems like a startlingly different personality.
Several researchers have noted sudden psychological turning points [or what are called] “existential shifts” preceding remarkable recovery. Dr. Marco DeVries and his associates found that a group of spontaneous remission cases they studied all showed a relatively sudden change toward increased autonomous behavior, and significantly altered attitudes toward illness, treatment, relationships, and spiritual beliefs.”
Caryle Hirshberg and Marc Barasch, Remarkable Recovery
In a paper titled “Psychological Changes Preceding Spontaneous Remission of Cancer” several researchers discovered that common among those who spontaneously healed from cancer was:
“…an increased dystonic reaction to limited aspects of the personality and an increased syntonic reaction to a wider set of characteristics than normally accessed.”
Schilder, J. N., de Vries, M. J., Goodkin, K., & Antoni, M. (2004). Psychological Changes Preceding Spontaneous Remission of Cancer. Clinical Case Studies
In layman’s terms this amounts to a rejection of the limiting aspects of one’s personality and an opening up to, and acceptance of, a greater sense of self.
As self-transformation can lead in many directions, some good and some bad, which form of it primes the body for healing? The etymology of the word heal offers a clue, as at root this word means a return to wholeness. A movement in the direction of psychological wholeness, which Carl Jung identified as the epitome of psychological health, is the form of self-transformation that promotes healing. Psychological wholeness is an ideal state which can only ever be approached, never fully attained, and it entails increased awareness of all aspects of who we are and integration of these aspects into our conscious sense of self. In volume 16 of his Collected Works, Carl Jung wrote that:
“…no previous age has ever needed wholeness so much. It is abundantly clear that this is the prime problem confronting the art of psychic healing in our day.” -Carl Jung, Collected Works Volume 16
Wholeness is attained through self-acceptance, coupled with self-knowledge, and expressed through acts of courage. Without self-acceptance we tend to deny and repress aspects of who we are, thus blocking their healthy expression. Without self-knowledge we never discover our true potential and what we value in life. Without courage we never express our potentials in the service of valued ends. Or as Mate wrote:
“When we heal, we are engaged in recovering our lost parts of self, not trying to change or “better” them. As the depth psychologist and wilderness guide Bill Plotkin told me, the core question is “not so much looking at what’s wrong, but where is the person’s wholeness not fully realized or lived out?””
Gabor Mate, The Myth of Normal
While self-transformation can enhance the healing capacities of the body, the fact remains that we are never in complete control of an illness, nor of matters of life and death. We can take all the steps necessary to heal and yet remain sick. But this does not invalidate the benefits of self-transformation as a response to illness or disease. For the pursuit of wholeness is an enriching and meaningful experience that will help us endure life no matter the health of our body. In fact, many people only wake up to their more authentic self when faced with their mortality and so amidst the great suffering that accompanies disease, a silver lining can be found. An illness or disease may be the necessary spark that inspires us to discover who we truly are and which imbues us with the courage to live in a way more aligned with our authentic sense of self.
“It is only in the face of death that man’s self is born.” -Saint Augustine
Or as Martin Heidegger wrote:
“If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life – and only then will I be free to become myself.”
Martin Heidegger, Being and Time