There’s an article elsewhere on this website that expresses doubts about something I believe in. There’s no scientific evidence, it says, that thinking positively can keep you healthy or that being determined to fight back against an illness can help you heal. I’m not a scientist, but I’m convinced that the mind can profoundly influence what goes on in the body because I’ve seen it happen.
In the 1990s, Gene, a close friend of my husband’s, developed throat cancer. Chemo nearly killed him but didn’t seem to make much impression on his cancer, and he was told he had about six weeks to live. Willing to try just about anything, Gene flew from New York to California to see a psychiatrist who had had some success in treating cancer patients with meditation.
For a couple of weeks, with guidance from the psychiatrist, Gene spent most of every day meditating—and his tumor began to shrink. By the time he returned to New York City, his astounded doctors couldn’t find any trace of the cancer.
The experience transformed Gene’s life. Before long, he began to teach meditation to cancer patients. Like his California mentor, he never suggested that anyone forego surgery or chemo or other conventional medical treatments. He hoped meditation would make the conventional therapies both more effective and easier to tolerate. Gene saw people individually and also led group meditations. His fees were modest, scaled to what he believed people could afford. He’s not famous, but he was his own miracle and he helped a lot of people.
Five years after Gene began meditating, his cancer came back and this time there was no stopping it. During the last weeks of his life, his meditation students set up a schedule so that he’d have someone with him every day to go along to doctors’ appointments, pick up groceries or just keep him company. The people he had cared for took care of him until he died. Gene is the main reason I believe—no, I know—that some people can use their minds to heal themselves, or at least affect the course of a disease.
Writer Barbara Ehrenreich and others say that those who use their minds to try to heal themselves are pursuing a false hope, and there’s a risk that when they fail, they’ll blame themselves. I doubt Gene felt like a failure when the cancer came back. He’d done so much with the five years he gained.
I suspect that all of us can do what Gene did, to some degree, some of the time. The question for scientists, it seems to me, is how we can do it better.
Flora Davis has written scores of magazine articles and is the author of five nonfiction books, including the award-winning Moving the Mountain: The Women’s Movement in America Since 1960 (1991, 1999). She currently lives in a retirement community and continues to work as a writer.