A WHOLE-PERSON MODEL OF CANCER RECOVERY: A MIND/BODY MODEL OF CANCER DEVELOPMENT
The mind/body model is the pattern we see emerging from the current research into the links between mind and body in the development of cancer. A step-by-step explanation of the process follows. We anticipate that further research will clarify and possibly alter some of its elements, but this is the clearest picture we can construct with the data currently available to us.
There is considerable evidence that stress predisposes people to illness, including cancer. Research has shown that it is possible to predict major illness based on the number of stresses in people's lives in the months preceding the onset of the illness. Our clinical observations confirm this clustering of major stresses in our patients' lives, but they also suggest that the effect of these stresses is even greater if they threaten some role or relationship that is central to the individual's identity or if they pose a problem or situation from which there is apparently no escape. Moreover, our studies and others suggest that these critical stresses are likely to have occurred six to eighteen months prior to diagnosis of the disease.
Although many people may experience serious stresses during their lives, it is' not just stress but the way of reacting to stress that makes a difference in the susceptibility to disease. As previously discussed, we have all learned rules about who we are and how we are to act, which provide the limits within which we cope with stresses. In some cases, these rules limit a person's ability to cope with stress to the point that the stresses seem to pose unsolvable problems. The result can be depression, despair, hopelessness, and helplessness—all feelings that have been reported to precede cancer. Because of these feelings, at either a conscious or unconscious level, serious illness and/or death become acceptable as potential solutions.
The limbic system, otherwise known as the visceral brain, is integral to all those activities essential to the self-preservation of the organism, such as the fight-or-flight reaction. As a result, it is designed to record stress and its effects, in addition to all the other feelings and sensations of the body. The limbic system, then, records feelings of depression and despair being experienced by an individual.
The major pathway by which the limbic system influences the body is through the hypothalamus, a small area in the brain. The messages that the hypothalamus receives from the limbic system are then translated in two important ways: First part of the hypothalamus— that part most responsive to human emotional stress—participates in controlling the immune system. Second, the hypothalamus plays a critical role in regulating the activity of the pituitary gland, which in turn regulates the remainder of the endocrine system with its vast range of hormonal control functions throughout the body.
The immune system—the body's natural defense—is designed to contain or destroy any cancerous cells, which current medical thinking suggests we all have in our bodies from time to time. Suppression of the immune system, however, can result in cancerous growth. In this mind/body model, emotional stress, mediated by the limbic system via the hypothalamus, produces a suppression of the immune system, which leaves the body susceptible to the development of cancer.
Pituitary Activity/Endocrine System
To complicate matters, evidence suggests that the hypothalamus, responding to stress, triggers the pituitary gland in such a way that the hormonal balance of the body—mediated by the endocrine system—is changed. This is particularly significant since an imbalance in adrenal hormones has been shown to create a greater susceptibility to carcinogenic substances.
Increase in Abnormal Cells
The result of such a hormonal imbalance can be an increased production of abnormal cells in the body and a weakened ability of the immune system to combat these cells.
With this sequence of physiological changes, optimal conditions are now created for cancer growth. That is, at the same time the body's defenses against intruders are lowest, the production of abnormal cells is increased. The result can be a life-threatening disease.