Remarkable Recovery

Remarkable Recovery: What Extraordinary Healings Tell Us About Getting Well and Staying Well, by Caryle Hirshberg and Marc Ian Barasch, 1995, 334 pgs., $12.00.

At a time in medicine and science when researchers are peering into ever stronger microscopes to unlock the secrets of the smallest bits and pieces of the building blocks of life, Caryle Hirshberg and Marc Ian Barasch crash brazenly onto this intensely focused scene like uninvited guests at a society party, knocking over tables of carefully arranged hors d’oeuvres and talking about all the “wrong” things.

When it comes to cancer treatment, they suggest in Remarkable Recovery, it’s time to step back and examine the big picture. Perhaps medicine’s reductionistic approach to understanding cancer has overlooked vital clues to possible healing options – clues found in the lives of people who have actually beaten the odds and survived “fatal” cancers. People like Mr. DeAngelo, an alcoholic who stunned his doctor by walking into the hospital 12 years after he was thought to have died from “fatal” stomach cancer, and Carol Knudtson, still alive more than a decade after a “fatal” fast-growing lymphoma disappeared from her throat, and Suzanna McDougal, an organic farmer whose “fatal” ovarian cancer dissolved between medical check-ups.

Motivated by the tendency of many, though not all, medical professionals to label cases of cancer recovery as unexplainable freak occurrences that don’t fit easily into their understanding of the disease, Hirshberg, an author and cofounder of the Remission Project at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and Barasch, an author and journalist, search out and interview dozens of cancer survivors to ascertain just what made them, and not others, survive.

Each of the survivors described in the book worked hard at their own healing strategy, either in conjunction with or instead of traditional cancer therapy. “The way I saw it, I was in a fight,” one survivor explains. “And I decided I would train more than any fighter in history.” Some survivors radically changed their diets, some sought hypnotherapy, some concentrated on graphic visualizations of their body fighting the cancer, some began exercising, some took massive vitamin doses, some cultivated new interests, some fell in love. The factors seem endless, unrelated, and, by traditional scientific methods, unmeasurable. Yet, the authors insist:

“…the very existence of such cases . . . confronts us in starkest terms with the notion of a healing ‘x-factor,’ a hidden variable in the mind-body-spirit equation that cannot be found in medical charts. . . . It is of vital importance to medicine that such powers be investigated in all their various guises.”

In the first eight chapters, Hirshberg and Barasch effortlessly juxtapose these engaging, story-like case reviews of cancer recovery with more rigorous explanatory information that attempts to investigate these complex factors. Like the aroma of hot cinnamon muffins passed under your nose at breakfast, these case histories linger suggestively in your mind as the authors build their scientific case for a mind-spirit component to cancer recovery. Their case rests on information from cancer researchers, non-traditional healers, psychologists, psychiatrists, physicians, and a wide array of biological and psychological studies. It also rests on evidence from religious healings, the complex linkage of your immune system with your nervous and endocrine systems, other substantiated connections between your mind and body (as demonstrated by biofeedback, hypnosis, and adrenaline and endorphin release in response to emotion), and your own biological healing mechanisms.

This mind-spirit component is part of an innate healing system, they postulate in the ninth chapter, an unmapped super-system of the body and mind that performs three main functions: self-diagnosis, self-repair and self-regeneration. Day to day it is constant and unobtrusive, “the Acme Janitorial Service on perpetual contract for health maintenance,” continually flushing out bacteria and healing cuts and bruises. But when our bodies are threatened by potentially fatal disease, like cancer (or AIDS), “the mind is summoned to the engine rooms of the body” to unleash a constellation of factors that can rev up the healing system. These factors, which differ from person to person, range from biological mechanisms like nutrition, wound healing, immunity, genetics, and neurotransmitters to psychological mechanisms like emotions, belief systems, dreams and symbols, hypnosis, biofeedback, dissociative states, relationships, visualization, art, music, and the power of love. The key, Hirshberg and Barasch suggest, is to determine which factors work best for each individual.

To this end, the authors in their final chapter call for the establishment of a registry for patients who have recovered from cancer and for medical professionals to open their minds and laboratories to the possibility of the existence of such a healing system. Four appendices expand this theme with a sample registry questionnaire, a sample survivor case report questionnaire, examples of survivors’ own descriptions of the impact of various factors, and a pilot study aimed at better elucidating survivors’ psychosocial characteristics.

Ultimately, Hirshberg and Barasch aim to foster a medicine that can “color outside the lines: lines that sometimes artificially divide doctor from patient, fact from feeling, surgery from synergy, chemo from caring.” They also recognize that these sentiments may be a bitter pill for a medical tradition that has undoubtedly made great strides by reducing disease and healing to tinier and tinier physiological bits while shunning most broad-brush, yet potentially relevant, anecdotal and psychological information. “Remarkable recovery remains a continent of neighboring tribes inhabiting separate domains with scarcely a common language between them,” Hirshberg and Barasch conclude. “As with attempts of early physiologists to understand other now well-known systems, we can only impute the healing system’s existence from its appendages; collect such evidence . . . as we can; and hypothesize its mechanisms from the circumstances of inexplicable cures.” Only when this process has begun in earnest, they imply, can the party really begin.

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