Engaging the Mind to Positively Influence Cancer Outcomes

My friend and colleague Lorenzo Cohen, in preparation for completing a book manuscript, recently asked me “What is the key? If you could give one piece of advice or share, in a nutshell, what you’ve learned about lifestyle and your health—what would it be?”

I danced around that question. You see, I simply do not believe in one magic bullet—one intervention or lifestyle measure that is all-encompassing—that in itself can prevent cancer, treat cancer, or help ensure durable long-term survival.

We know the main determinants of health, but how do we place them in order? Is it environment first? Diet? Physical activity? Stress reduction? What ultimate benefit is derived by pursuing one or two at the expense of a more comprehensive and synergistic approach? The truth is, we just don’t know, and it may well vary from person to person.

Dr. Lorenzo Cohen is the Richard E. Haynes Distinguished Professor in Clinical Cancer Prevention, and the Director of the Integrative Medicine Program at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. He is a co-founder of the Society for Integrative Oncology.

Cohen is a top-funded NIH/NCI scientist in the area of integrative oncology. The studies he has led, or is currently leading, as primary investigator, include:

  • Effects of Tibetan Yoga on Fatigue and Sleep in Cancer (patients undergoing chemotherapy)
  • Bio-behavioral effects of Qigong During Treatment for Rectal Cancer
  • Placebo Controlled Trial of Acupuncture to Prevent Radiation-Induced Xerostomia
  • Yoga for Women with Breast Cancer Undergoing Radiotherapy
  • Chemotherapy and Mindfulness Relaxation
  • Medical Hypnosis during Bone Marrow Aspiration/Biopsy
  • Couple-Based Mind-Body Program for Lung Cancer Patients and their Partners
  • Meditation for the Treatment of Cognitive Dysfunction after Chemotherapy for Women with Breast Cancer
  • Bio-behavioral Effects of Yoga Versus Cognitive Behavioral Stress Management for Women with Breast Cancer Experiencing Depressive Symptoms and Undergoing Radiotherapy

There is no doubt that Dr. Cohen is a global authority on mind-body medicine and its effect on cancer survivors.

Cohen had a close relationship with the late David Servan-Schreiber, MD, PhD, the psychiatrist, neuroscientist and NY Times bestselling author of Anticancer, and that relationship has led to a number of interesting projects.

Most notable is a new study, currently unfolding, called Biobehavioral Outcomes and Mechanisms of a Comprehensive Lifestyle Intervention for Women with Breast Cancer. This important clinical trial includes approximately 160 women with stage II or III breast cancer. It incorporates significant lifestyle change during a course of radiation therapy, and measures periods of disease-progression survival up to five years. It is one of very few clinical trials to include multiple simultaneous interventions, as opposed to looking at one variable, such as diet.

In my view, this type of ‘non-reductive’ outcomes-based research design model is desperately needed in the field of integrative oncology, and I am delighted that Cohen is taking lead on this study.

Another important initiative is Cohen’s forthcoming book, co-authored with his wife, Alison Jefferies, titled Anticancer Living: Transform Your Life and Health with the Mix of Six. This is the natural evolution, if you will, to Servan-Schreiber’s Anticancer: A New Way of Life. It is set for publication in May 2018

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Cohen’s question was asked when I was interviewed for Anticancer Living, this summer, then again in a follow-up. I’d continued to dance around the answer to this question: “What is the key? If you could give one piece of advice or share, in a nutshell, what you’ve learned about lifestyle and your health—what would it be?”

My book, n of 1, is intentionally conjecture-free; it doesn’t offer in any overt way my philosophies and deep thoughts on cancer prevention, cancer treatment, recovery, and healing.

I had an opportunity to end each chapter with a ‘lessons learned’ or ‘takeaways’ sidebar of some kind. Several people offered this same suggestion. But my co-author, integrative oncologist Dr. Dawn Lemanne, and I decided to simply ‘show’, not tell: this is the essence and anatomy of n of 1.

My blog has been cathartic for expressing my deeper explorations and thoughts on the subject of cancer. It is the perfect place to share what I believe to be the essence, the foundational must-have, that single factor which enables our innate capacity for deep healing.

I responded to Cohen thusly:

“The foundation to my health was achieving an unfettered mind. It was a herculean task in the face of a life-limiting diagnosis.

Yes, I went through the typical range of emotions upon being told I had cancer.  Scared, anxious, depressed. But then I quieted.

This allowed me to home-in on the facts known about the disease and to respond proactively, not reactively, to the circumstances.

Being in a calmer frame-of-mind provided me the mental-means to dig deeper for answers to how I might manage my disease in a meaningful way. How I could create health in spite of disease.

Rising above the fear and anxiety would not have been possible without my wife, Linda, and my incredible support system.

And so, I believe it all starts with the mind—the most powerful and least understood organ.  I believe the mind runs the entire gizmo; it releases a pharmacopeia of chemicals that can be leveraged in profound ways. It allows for innate healing to be possible.”


There is no doubt that hearing the words “you have cancer” are among the most devastatingly impactful words a person may hear. The psychological, emotional, and spiritual impression is immense. The emotional rollercoaster that a newly diagnosed person typically experiences, and ultimately has to reconcile, is debilitating.

Regardless of your particular situation, a cancer diagnosis can never be entirely eliminated from one’s psyche.  Five years, 10 years, 20… it cannot be shaken.

Chemical Reactions

I consistently hear—anecdotally—from leading oncologists that their more proactive, positive-thinking patients tend to have better outcomes.

Though great strides continue to be made, modern science still has only a rudimentary understanding of how the human brain, our most complicated organ, works.

The mind and body are inextricably linked, and to go a step further—as I responded to Cohen’s question—I believe that the brain runs the entire human machine: our thoughts and pharmacopeia of chemicals (good and bad) in the brain can be engaged and leveraged to create positive or negative emotional—therefore, physical—health outcomes.

A relaxed, unfettered mind is conducive to a healthy whole person. It’s foundational. It’s essential. Anything less will negatively affect our overall cognitive ability, and the pursuit of true health and healing.

An anxious or depressed mind releases negative hormonal chemicals, also known as neurotransmitters, such as cortisol and noradrenalin from the adrenal glands.  These stressor hormones underlie the body’s fight or flight response, directly increase heart rate, and trigger the release of glucose from energy stores.

Conversely, the brain also produces helpful hormones such as dopamine, serotonin and endorphins. Properly elevated dopamine levels enhance decision-making ability, control cravings, and directly relate to the pleasures of human experience.

Creating an Unfettered Mind Conducive to Healing

While chronic stress, B-vitamin deficiencies, and an unbalanced diet can lower dopamine levels, eating protein-rich foods such as nuts, beans, and fish, and getting a proper amount of antioxidants and amino acids—can ensure healthy chemical levels. Switching to caffeine free beverages and reducing alcohol intake also helps increase natural dopamine levels.

One of the best ways to increase endorphin and serotonin levels is through regular exercise—effectively creating the equivalent of little anti-depressant and anti-anxiety pills. Quality carbohydrates in the form of whole grains, fruits and vegetables are all excellent sources of serotonin. Another terrific source for boosting serotonin and endorphin levels is through hearty laughter.

By keeping the mind well-nourished with a proper balance of nutrients and healthful intellectual stimulation, you better position the body to unleash its innate ability to heal. A healthy, balanced diet, regular exercise, and plentiful laughter are all terrific ways to decrease the negative neurotransmitters and increase the good ones. These ‘nourishers’ may not be enough to sustain the ideal balance of brain chemicals at all times but there are other avenues in which you can rest the mind to assist the healing process.

[Related Content: The Best Stress Reduction Techniques for Cancer Survivors]

Consider incorporating any of the items below that support a calm, unfettered mind. Mix and match, or focus on only one; the most important thing is to find the relaxation and stimulation techniques that you personally enjoy, so that they become something you look forward to and which you can incorporate into your daily routine so as to become part of your lifestyle.

27 Ways to Help Balance and Settle the Mind

  1. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
  2. Gentle Stretching
  3. Deep Breathing
  4. Guide Imagery
  5. Yoga
  6. Tai Chi
  7. Qigong
  8. Healing Touch
  9. Prayer
  10. Social Connections (spending time with family, friends)
  11. Aerobic Exercise (walking, biking, running, swimming)
  12. Sports (participating, not spectating)
  13. Spending Time Outdoors
  14. Gardening
  15. Massage (professional therapeutic massage, and/or by spouse/partner/friend)
  16. Reiki
  17. Acupuncture
  18. Reading
  19. Cooking (including group cooking; anticancer recipes, of course)
  20. Art
  21. Music
  22. Laughter
  23. Writing (general reading, therapeutic writing – journaling)
  24. Drinking Tea
  25. Pets
  26. Long Baths
  27. Support or Social Groups (in support of your diagnosis or your hobbies and interests)

There is no one-size-fits-all to creating ‘calm’.

Never underestimate the power of a well-nourished, well-rested, well-exercised, and intellectually stimulated brain to help increase contentment, relaxation, and the opportunity to increase your innate capacity to heal.

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