How to Talk About Contentious Issues in Science
(This article is adapted from The Miracle Club. Notes appear at the end.)
I honor the perspective of journalist Norman Cousins who wrote in Anatomy of an Illness in 1979: “Not every illness can be overcome. But many people allow illness to disfigure their lives more than it should. They cave in needlessly. They ignore and weaken whatever powers they have for standing erect.”
Although I urge caution throughout this book, I do not discount the possibility of extraordinary—even miraculous—episodes of recovery pertaining to the mind. And when I write “mind” I use an open-ended definition. If the mind has extra-physical dimensions, if it goes beyond cognition and motor commands, which I argue that it does, then the mind opens onto vistas that the human search, while millennia old, has only begun to detect.
Since the mid-1960s, a handful of physicians and clinicians have been making an effort to document one of the most astounding yet verifiable facts in the field of cancer research: spontaneous remissions of terminal cases.* In researching this question at the New York Academy of Medicine library, I found that about twenty such cases appear in world medical literature each year.† Many cases, clinicians agree, are probably unreported.
Based on estimated spontaneous regression rates worldwide—about one out of every one hundred thousand cases of cancer**—it can be extrapolated from the number of new cancer cases reported annually in the United States that about fifteen episodes of spontaneous regression occur here each year. There is no consensus around the causes of spontaneous remissions. Clinicians hypothesize that in rare cases patients may have been misdiagnosed, or patients may have been suffering from a severely impaired immune system, which, for reasons unknown, was restored to normal or exceptional functioning, perhaps due to the healing of an undetected virus or infection. Clinicians also acknowledge the possibility of mental therapeutics.
“Of all possible mechanisms cited for regression,” wrote G. B. Challis and H. J. Stam in the journal Acta Oncologica in 1990, “the psychological is the only category which is not clearly biological.” In surveying the extant literature, these researchers found that “only three authors are primarily responsible for reports of regressions by psychological means in the scientific literature”—and only one, Australian psychiatrist and researcher Ainslie Meares, “provided sufficient information to be able to include the cases in our tables.”
Ainslie Meares (1910–1986) presented a special case in point. In the 1970s and ’80s, Meares oversaw and published research on the practice of intensive meditation by terminally diagnosed cancer patients for whom traditional treatments, such as chemotherapy, had been discontinued; in other cases he employed intensive meditation (sometimes three hours a day) with patients who had “advanced cancer” but were still undergoing treatment. He documented notable therapeutic episodes in both groups.
In a 1980 report on seventy-three patients who had advanced cancer,†† Meares found that intensive meditation helped relive pain, depression, and anxiety, and contributed to a more peaceful and dignified death when cases proved terminal. In addition, Meares wrote of cancer patients who undergo intensive meditation: “There is reason to expect a ten percent chance of quite remarkable slowing of the rate of growth of the tumour, and a ten percent chance of less marked but still significant slowing. The results indicate that patients with advanced cancer have a ten percent chance of regression of the growth.”
Meares also documented a small, but not isolated, number of cases where terminally diagnosed patients spontaneously regressed while following a protocol of intensive meditation. In an article in Australian Family Physician in March 1981,+ he described the case of a fifty-four- year-old married woman with two grown children who had recovered from breast cancer following meditation. When a mastectomy failed to check her cancer growth, the patient had refused chemotherapy and embarked on a program of anabolic steroid use and natural supplements (which Meares neither studied nor endorsed). She began to show healing after seeing Meares for meditation sessions each weekday for one month, using a technique of sitting still and experiencing her “essential being,” as he described it, without concentration of any kind. (In general, Meares restricted his research to subjects who had seen him for at least twenty meditation sessions of one hour or more daily. Although he does not specify the length of time this fifty-four-year-old woman sat daily, some of his patients meditated up to three hours a day.) He wrote of her remission:
A single case, considered by itself, may not be very convincing. But if we consider the particular case in conjunction with other patients who have responded in similar fashion, the relationship of treatment and outcome becomes more clearly established. In other words, the present case is not an isolated incident. It is one of a series of cases of regression of cancer following intensive meditation in some of which the regression has been more complete than in others.
I was informally describing all this one evening in 2016 to a research pathologist at Harvard Medical School who specializes in breast cancer. I broached the topic with him of these rare but documented cases of spontaneous remission. Some cases, as noted, are evidently autoimmune related; but we also talked about the correlations with intensive meditation. The researcher’s response: “I have to be objective. But I have noticed that patients who display a positive attitude toward their treatment tend to do better. My colleagues have noticed this too. We don’t know why that is.”
It is difficult to write about this kind of subject, even inconclusively, because it tends to polarize. Readers with New Age sympathies are apt to seize upon such discussions as validation that mind-body medicine, perhaps coupled with some kind of detox program, represents the royal road to health. Meares said no such thing, and he was scrupulous, as any responsible researcher would be, not to plant false hopes. Yet there is an equal and opposite extreme, in which a physician or a skeptic (usually a journalist) approaches such a discussion without a sense of proportionality, assuming that any such talk is akin to propagating groundless “miracles” or wishful thinking. (Indeed, after I had noted the Harvard researcher’s remarks on social media, another research physician I know objected that we were entertaining rash conclusions; he missed our expressed intent to avoid conclusions or leading questions but rather to frame a discussion.)
I want to give the final word to Meares, because his tone and carefulness exhibit what is needed today in the body-mind-spirit and New Thought culture. He wrote this in “Cancer, Psychosomatic Illness, and Hysteria” in the Lancet of November 7, 1981:
In medicine we no longer expect to find a single cause for a disease; rather we expect to find a multiplicity of factors, organic and psychological. It is not suggested that psychological reactions, either psychosomatic or hysterical, are a direct cause of cancer. But it seems likely that reactions resembling those of psychosomatic illness and conversion hysteria operate as causes of cancer, more so in some cases than in others, and that they operate in conjunction with the known chemical, viral, and radiational causes of the disease.
This is, to me, the kind of voice our society needs to cultivate generally—in politics, spirituality, and medicine. It is the voice that sustains a question, which is the vantage point from which all new understanding is gained.
*See Spontaneous Regression of Cancer by T. C. Everson and W. H. Cole (W. B. Saunders, 1966).
†“The Spontaneous Regression of Cancer: A Review of Cases from 1900 to 1987” by G. B. Challis and H. J. Stam, Acta Oncologica 29, Fasc. 5 (1990).
**“Spontaneous Regression of Cancer: A Review of Cases,” Challis and Stam.
††“What Can the Cancer Patient Expect from Intensive Meditation?,” Australian Family Physician (May 1980).
+“Regression of the Recurrence of Carcinoma of the Breast at Mastectomy Site Associated with Intensive Meditation.”
I value your reading time. If you enjoyed this article you might also like: