Grace Gawler Writes About Beliefs, Cancer & the Power of Placebo in Survival Part 2

DIAGNOSIS, PROGNOSIS AND BEYOND ( adapted from Women of Silence – The Emotional Healing of Breast Cancer-Grace Gawler pub  1994, 2003. Click here to buy your copy – also available in e-Book.) Only available from the author.

It was noticeable in the early days of conducting support groups, that when people spoke of their lives and their cancers, other patients in the room would begin to nod knowingly as they identified how their own story aligned with those dealing with the same cancer.
We all have an ability to switch off our life force and lose our passion for living. There are many stories from indigenous cultures of people who consciously died because they believed the would. Perhaps such a message triggers a powerful belief that causes the soul to leave.  This ability has also been demonstrated in many indigenous cultures including the Australian aborigine, the Kikuyu of Kenya and the bushmen of the Kalahari. There have been many instances of this phenomenon. These cultures live very much in the here and now, so when imprisoned, they believe it is forever and they simply die. They lose their will to live or will to be because they see no end to their situation. Tribal indigenous Australians are  known for the phenomenon of “bone pointing” where healthy individuals die because their belief system supports the tribes medicine man who has a position of power and authority.

There are parallels between these experiences and the experiences of those diagnosed with a life threatening illness. Often, much depends on how the diagnosis and prognosis are delivered to the patient. At a vulnerable moment, information poorly delivered by a doctor and/or poorly received by the patient can cause the spirit to retreat and withdraw, eventually resulting in death. I have known many patients with six months to live who die almost to the day as if set by some invisible internal clock. When lack of hope and possibility are vocalised by a person of power, the patient is, at that moment, faced with a life and death decision. So powerful can it be, that all else, all survival messages, are filtered out of the patient’s awareness and the process of dying begins.

 As far as cancer patients are concerned; bad news delivered well gives hope and a survival message. Bad news delivered without hope, equals a patient that dies on schedule. Today I spent time with a very compassionate oncologist. His practice prides itself on delivering bad news well and providing options and support. Having been in practice for many years he said that he was responsible for delivering reality information yet not once had a patient left his rooms upset or crying from despair of hopelesness!

In my experience, when a sentence or prognosis involves the patient taking on a specific time limit for their life, it almost always leads to a punctual appointment with death. If a patient accepts their prognosis and cuts off possibility of recovery, it is difficult to inspire them to survive. Often, these people have lost their spirit, their will to live. Their belief system cannot accommodate possibility of survival a- the will to heal has evaporated. Instead of offering hope a negative prognosis can give a message from which they may not recover. This message is very difficult to overwrite and often the best that one can offer in this scenario is the possibility of a good death. A patient can take on a definite prognosis like a negative affirmation. This becomes imprinted and therefore becomes part of the belief of the person. Hypnosis can be the solution for patients who have been given a negative or poor prognosis. Under hypnosis the prognosis can be re-framed into an open-ended outcome. That is to say that possibility becomes one of the choices.
Maybe prognosis time could be an appropriate moment to access any skills of denial or ignorance that you have acquired! Many patients have described how they seemed to automatically screened out the doctors voice when a prognosis was poor and when it was poorly delivered.
The following series of short, true stories, will give you an understanding of placebo in practice. Our first story is an incredible one, demonstrating the healing abilities of the mind—body connection and the power of a patient’s belief system.
 An American “hillbilly” was diagnosed with throat cancer by his general practitioner. He told him that he would have to go to a large city hospital in order to have the cancer treated. The doctor also told him that this hospital had a new form of ray treatment that would cure his cancer. The man was awed by the large hospital and after arrival there, was given a basic check up. When a thermometer was placed in this naive man’s mouth, his doctor realised that the man thought that it was his ray treatment! After several sessions of this “wonder treatment” the man was cured—his cancer disappeared   completely!
This recorded story although fascinating – happens rarely.
During my many months in the Phililippines in the 1970’s – I saw many local village people  healed from many basic ailments due to their belief. (watch the ABC Catalyst voodo video in previous blog). In our western society different cultural and spiritual beliefs operate – so our expectations & outcomes are likely to be different. Positive ‘thinking’ attempts to tap into this mind response – however for many, positive ‘thinking’ is simply mental gymnastics; as well it takes a great deal of energy to be positive all the time. Positive ‘thinking’ can be responsible for supressed depression and denial – possibility thinking may be a better option. I believe that possibility thinking may be more closely related to positive placebo!

 More stories and discussion about positive thinking & the placebo effect  in my next blog.