My mother had a sore neck, probably from Pilates class, she figured. So Mom went to her doctor, who ordered an X-ray. Upon reviewing the X-ray, her doctor ordered a CT scan for a week later. My mother asked her doctor why he was ordering more tests. Did he see evidence of osteoporosis? Arthritis? A slipped disk?
Without even making eye contact with her, Mom’s doctor said, “Could be metastatic cancer.” Then he promptly left the room.
Let me explain what was happening in my mother’s nervous system at the moment her doctor said the words “metastatic cancer” without offering any comfort. Mom was married to my father, a radiologist who read X-rays for a living, so Mom’s thinking, rational forebrain knew that if the radiologist saw anything even mildly suspicious, he might order follow up testing, and it wasn’t necessarily the end of the world. But Mom’s rational forebrain was not in charge in the moment when her doctor said the words “metastatic cancer.” Instead, the amygdala in Mom’s primal brain flashed back to my father, who had died of metastatic cancer only a few years earlier. All her amygdala heard was, “METASTATIC CANCER! A CERTAIN DEATH SENTENCE!”
When Mom’s amygdala heard the word “cancer,” her amygdala automatically signaled “danger,” and the red alert fired off, flipping on Mom’s “fight-or-flight” stress response. Mom’s hypothalamus then released hormones that communicated with her pituitary gland, which communicated with her adrenal gland, and then BOOM. Her body was instantly filled with high levels of stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine. Her whole body was now in what Walter Cannon at Harvard called the “stress response.” It was ready to outrun the threat, even though in reality, there was no threat to outrun. The only thing Mom could do was wait a week until her CT scan was scheduled.
You may not realize how much power your healer has to harm your health. Consider this:
1. When you’re scared by what your healer says, your self-repair mechanisms flip off.
Your body is equipped with brilliant self-repair mechanisms, but as I describe in Mind Over Medicine, those self-repair mechanisms flip off when the stress response is activated. They only function properly when the nervous system is in the relaxation response. When Mom’s doctor delivered the news that she might have metastatic cancer without comforting her or softening the blow with other options for what it might be, he activated her stress response and inhibited her body’s ability to heal itself.
2. What you put into your mind affects your health outcome.
The “nocebo effect” (the placebo’s evil twin) is activated every time you put negative beliefs about your health into your mind. If you believe your disease is “chronic,” “incurable,” or “terminal,” you might be creating your own reality. Read here for scientific proof that negative beliefs affect your health.
3. Whatever your healer believes can come true.
If your health care provider believes you’ll have a negative outcome, it has been scientifically proven that you’re more likely to experience a bad outcome, simply because of your healer’s belief. Fortunately, the opposite is also true. If your healer believes you’ll have a full recovery, you’re more likely to get well.
4. Prognostic data can kill you.
When you get sick, it’s tempting to ask for statistics. “Doc, what’s the chance that I’ll survive this?” When you ask (or even if you don’t ask), your doctor is likely to start spouting off numbers like “You have a 20% five-year survival.” In other words, there’s an 80% chance that you’ll die in five years.
But here’s the kicker. The minute you put those numbers into your mind, you replace hope with helplessness, and it weakens your immune system and makes you more susceptible to disease. Case study after case study demonstrates that when someone is told she has three months to live, they tend to die in three months — even when the autopsy finds out they had a misdiagnosis! What you don’t know could save your life.
5. HOPE heals, but withdrawing hope can make you sick.
In one story from Bernie Siegel’s Love, Medicine & Miracles, a chemotherapy regimen called “EPOH” was being studied in a research protocol for efficacy. Most of the study centers were reporting consistent results — some benefit from the chemotherapy, but nothing earth-shattering. One study center, however, was getting dramatically better results, so the research team investigated. What were they doing differently?
Turns out the doctor in the center with better results had renamed the chemotherapy regimen. Instead of telling his patients they were getting EPOH, he rearranged the letters and dosed them with HOPE.
Physicians tend to make a huge mistake by robbing patients of HOPE in the name of "being realistic" and "looking at the statistics." We’re so afraid of offering false hope that we forget how powerful hope is as medicine. How can there such a thing as "false hope?" In my research on those who had spontaneous remissions from seemingly "incurable" illnesses, they all had hope — against all odds — and then miracles happened.
The Whole Health Medicine Institute
Because this issue is so near and dear to my heart, I founded the Whole Health Medicine Institute, a training program for physicians. One of our missions is to help doctors embrace what it means to be a true healer, which includes how to deliver bad news in a way that heals, rather than harms. Because many healers are not doctors but nurse practitioners, midwives, acupuncturists, chiropractors, physician assistants, therapists, and health coaches, we're now expanding the Whole Health Medicine Institute to include other health care providers.
The four-month program will be launching in July with a three-day live event in San Francisco featuring me, Martha Beck, Ph.D., Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, and Anne Davin, PhD. Other guest teachers include Bernie Siegel, Larry Dossey, and Bruce Lipton. Learn more about the Whole Health Medicine Institute and register to participate here.
I’ll be writing more next week about the kinds of healthy methods for delivering bad news that we teach at the Whole Health Medicine Institute. But until then, let’s get back to my mother.
What Happened To Mom?
Unfortunately, despite her best efforts to stay calm, a week of worrying that she had metastatic cancer left Mom so wound up that her back went out. By the time she got the good news, Mom could barely walk. The scary news her doctor had delivered without a lick of comfort not only failed to help her heal; it actually harmed her body.
The good news is that Mom doesn’t actually have cancer. She has a Schmorl’s node, a totally benign condition that needs no further treatment. In fact, when her doctors looked back over some old X-rays after the fact, they found evidence of a Schmorl’s node way back on her old films. Her week of worry could have been avoided if someone had bothered to review her old records.
Has This Happened To You?
Doctors and other healers never mean to hurt their patients. We’re honestly doing the best we can, and our hearts are pure with good intention. But we can always improve how we practice our healing arts. Patients can also be proactive about learning to protect themselves from this kind of harm. In Part Two of this blog, I’ll be writing about what you can do to avoid being harmed like Mom was.
Has anything like this ever happened to you? Tell us your stories in the comments.