Christine Gross, a reader from Ontario Canada, recently asked:
“What is it in someone that makes them do so well [in the face of cancer]? Spirit? Will? Resilience? Where do they get that? Are they born with that, [is it acquired] through various practices, or through life’s experiences?”
We know a lot about the overlapping activities many exceptional responders proactively do in their quest to heal—the incorporation of things such as: a clean, plant-based diet; stress reduction activities; daily movement/exercise; strong social and spiritual connections; reducing levels of environmental and household toxins; hydration; and sleep.
However, the aforementioned focuses on the ‘what’, but not the ‘how’ in Christine’s question.
So how, exactly, do some people consistently apply various recommended lifestyle changes, and maintain positive attitudes that correlate with exceptional healing, throughout an extended period of time?
Is it genetic wiring, or rewiring, that makes them the way they are?
The Mindset of Exceptional Cancer Responders
Previously, I have written about my participation in and support for Harvard’s Network of Enigmatic Exceptional Responders (NEER) study, having personally recruited some of its participants.
I recently contacted several exceptional cancer responders, three of whom I had brought to that study. I paraphrased Christine’s question to me, and posed it to them as follows:
I understand the various approaches and lifestyle changes you implemented when diagnosed. However, regarding your general mindset change from pre- to post-diagnosis: can you comment on if or how the diagnosis affected your level of will, tenacity, and discipline, and your outlook on life (and death)?
This is what they wanted to share with you.
Nancy Novack, PhD
Stage 4 Ovarian Cancer
My oncologist said the most amazing thing to me on our first meeting the night I was diagnosed. “You have a very bleak diagnosis and a challenging prognosis. I think I can help you. I AM WITH YOU.”
Those were his first words to me after I received that truly bleak diagnosis of stage 4 ovarian cancer which had metastasized to my liver. Those four words changed my life forever more. I was not alone. I trusted him. And that trust opened my heart to recognize and honor the ‘angels in my midst’ who were likewise committed to my healing.
Opening my heart to the blessings, the prayers, the many sweet wishes… this changed my life. I let it all come in. Yes, sometimes it was overwhelming to truly FEEL what that ‘white light’ brought me. And often I felt transported to another ‘place’ where it all made total sense. I began to understand the will to live, as well as comprehend the value that commitment has to manifesting courage and resilience so that I could fulfill my purpose to bring light to others who had lost hope.
And that commitment has continued, and strengthens with every interaction I have with those in the cancer community.
Cancer also said to me: “Follow your bliss”… an old mantra from my hippie days. I am a clinical psychologist—I always advised my clients to find their bliss and follow it. I heeded my own counsel and followed my path of bliss to receive and accept the love of a special man—the love of my life, the joy every day—who has supported my healing and my commitment to help those on the cancer path.
What I want you to know: Find your courage, compassion, and immense gratitude.
Nancy Novack, PhD is a clinical psychologist and founder of Nancy’s List, a comprehensive resource that connects people living with cancer with financial assistance; integrative practitioners; healing centers; and support communities that offer hope, resilience, courage, emotional healing, and trust. Learn more at www.nancyslist.org.
Stage IV Inflammatory Breast Cancer
High-Grade Mucoepidermoid Carcinoma (Head and Neck)
Diagnosed: 2005; 2006 respectively
Today: No Evidence of Disease
Before cancer, I was an avid outdoor enthusiast and wilderness adventurer. I ran environmental nonprofits, taught leadership skills to women around the globe, and was a constant volunteer in my community, living the kind of life we “should” all be living to be a good person and prevent cancer and disease in general. In truth, I was living so intensely that I was creating inflammation pretty much every day, thus living chronically in a sympathetic state.
A couple of months after my diagnosis, I was waning, and realized I had to let go of everything and save my energy for my kids and my recovery. It became clear that a busy person can also be busy meditating, so I developed a daily meditation practice, because I knew conventional medicine alone would not be enough, if I was to heal. I learned to be a strong self-advocate and become mindful, even laser focused, on how every minute of every day was an opportunity to grow my spirit and heal my mind and body.
We lived on 60 acres, and grew the vast majority of our own food, learning a variety of skills such as tapping maple trees for syrup, raising poultry, and foraging medicinal herbs. I embraced the evolution of my mindset and behavior from merely surviving to thriving. We moved off the farm in 2016, and I now maintain a daily practice of staying in a parasympathetic state, growing as much of my food as I can, purchasing the rest from local organic farmers, and cooking mindfully, using food as medicine.
I help others navigate their healing while maintaining a stress free schedule. I have shed a number of relationships and have found new, more fulfilling ones. Now, 16 years post-diagnosis, I wake up in the morning, express gratitude, and set my intentions for the day before my feet hit the floor. Throughout the day, I check in with my breathing, mindfully choosing my activities and practicing compassion towards myself and others. That’s it! Just for today, my choices will be simple, attainable and sustainable so that my mind, body and spirit thrive.
What I want you to know: The minute you’re diagnosed is when the opportunity to heal your mind, body, and spirit is presented. It’s your opportunity to make changes in your life and take back control. Sometimes that can shift the dynamic in your family but, if you’re not all in, you’re not in at all.
Kathy Bero, award-winning author, speaker, western reiki master teacher, Jikiden Reiki practitioner, and integrative health coach. Learn more at www.justfortoday.health
Putnam Valley, NY
Stage 4 Melanoma
Today: No Evidence of Disease
Cancer was a catalyst for great changes in my life. I had been interested in health and wellness before developing cancer, always reading nutrition labels, avoiding soda and fast food for the most part, and exercising regularly through various sports.
However, I still ate a pretty typical American diet, and I began drinking alcohol in excess in college. I was also unaware of the profound effect of the mindset on health. As a student-athlete with poor lifestyle habits I possessed little ability to handle stress, and had low confidence, self-worth, and self-image.
In my first semester, at 17 years old, I began bingeing on food and alcohol, gained more than the freshman 15, then was diagnosed with stage 3 melanoma.
It wasn’t until my senior year, after 2 melanoma recurrences and a 7-14 month prognosis, that my mindset shifted. I realized I had much more power and control over my health than my doctors had led me to believe.
I took ownership of my health, and engaged in a more empowered role in my health care, expressing my wants and needs to the doctors, not the other way around. With a more positive mindset, among other complementary treatments, I implemented a radical diet change.
After achieving remission, I was surprised by a profound spiritual component to life; after months of exploration, I surrendered my life to that aspect, namely, Jesus. After this surrender, emotional and mental healing intensified. I began to learn that I am deeply and unconditionally loved. Surrounded by people who reflected that love, I gained the ability to have stronger relationships with others. The fears of life, and people, began to shrink because I had found faith.
A much stronger sense of purpose emerged, along with an understanding of the gift of life and time. There was a realization that mistakes are forgiven and forgotten and, no matter how much I mess up, there is still a great plan for my life and hope for my future.
These beliefs remain extremely important in my health and life today. I strongly believe that these mental, emotional and spiritual factors have been my saving grace and kept me healthy and alive over the last 10-plus years.
What I want you to know: You are loved, no matter how your health turns out, and no matter what you do. You are loved! There is a great plan for you and hope for your future! All things are possible with God, no matter your past or present circumstances.
Bailey O’Brien is a cancer coach and certified integrative nutrition health coach. Learn more at www.baileyobrien.com
Irene Brennan, PhD
Extensive Stage Small Cell Lung Cancer; Localized Kidney Cancer; Stage 3B Endometrial Cancer
Diagnosed: 2000; 2001; 2010, respectively
Today: No Evidence of Disease
Great question! My answer reminds me of what a dramatic change my lung cancer diagnosis brought forth in my life.
The diagnosis of lung cancer came out of the blue for me: I was feeling well except for a persistent cough. When I met with my pulmonologist, his answer to my question about the chances of recovery were: “Maybe 3 or 4 percent”.
My first thought was, “Well, I’ve been in the 97% before!” As that thought indicates, you can tell I am an optimist.
At the time of my first cancer, lung cancer, I was working as a clinical psychologist, supervising interns treating mostly single moms and their kids in a rehab program in Escondido, California. At that time, I did not, and still do not, “practice” any religious belief system larger than wanting to be cared for and to care for others. My background had comprised thirteen years of living and teaching as a Catholic nun before marrying—twice. My children, at the time, were 18 and 13.
After the diagnosis, I was at odds with myself, not knowing how to think about my life. One day, a massage therapist told me that I had to make a decision about whether I wanted to live and, if so: why?
Initially stumped, I knew that I couldn’t live for my husband, or my children. And then I had an ‘Aha!’ moment: I wanted to live because I had not fulfilled who I was meant to be.
I then knew that every step of my response to my cancer was to become more fully who I am.
That was my first of three separate cancers, diagnoses, treatments, and recoveries. During my treatment for lung cancer (surgery, chemo, and what my radiologist identified as more radiation than he had been able to give any other patient), a spot was discovered on my kidney—eventually identified as cancer… and so more surgery, and a final chemo blast. It could be said that the lung cancer saved my life.
I eventually returned to my work as a psychologist. But my journey with cancer wasn’t over.
Several years later I was diagnosed with an “incurable” form of endometrial cancer. I went the whole route: surgery, chemotherapy, hospice, and even had a “goodbye” gathering with my family and good friends.
And then I began to get better. I didn’t believe it at first, but eventually took on the challenges of living, a bit disgruntled at first. That was twenty-years ago. At present, I’m 83, living independently in a senior living community. I don’t even think about cancer.
Looking back over these years after my cancer diagnosis and recovery I believe that my cancer experiences have given me a willingness to make the decisions to live intensely—engage fully in what I am doing, question if it’s right or needing to change, and move confidently into what I sense is right for me (in the sense of where I belong, and what I am doing) and, when I need to, move confidently into what’s next.
What I want you to know: Decide if you want to live, and why. If you do want to live, take advantage of every opportunity and be willing to give up anything that gets in the way. Stay with the providers that you like and trust.
Irene Brennan, PhD is a retired clinical psychologist.
Investigating Unity in Diversity
I’ve heard from dozens of radical remission or cancer outlier cases since my book, n of 1, was published. In an effort to capture these stories of remarkable healing—and in service of true rigor—I have encouraged people to work with their oncologists to document their remarkable cases.
Specifically, I advocate for peer reviewed case reports that become part of the medical literature. It is important to add to the approximately 1500 existing, published exceptional cancer responder cases.
In my article, Engaging the Mind to Positively Influence Cancer Outcomes, I shared an exchange with Dr. Lorenzo Cohen, who had a few more questions after he interviewed for his book, Anticancer Living. The question was similar to the one I posed to Nancy, Kathy, Bailey, and Irene.
I responded 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 agility 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.
The Power of Mindset
Courses in philosophy will state that the mind is a ‘faculty’ that manifests itself in ‘feeling, understanding, perspective, perception, reasoning, motivation, and memory’. Mind boggling as it may seem, it is not an organ like the brain or the heart, but is referred to as if it is.
Of myriad writings on ‘the mind’, a traditional view associated with René Descartes is that the mind is a collection of independent thinking substances.
Current thinking expresses that the mind is not necessarily a ‘collection of substances’ as posited by Descartes, but it is a system of interacting properties or capacities possessed by humans and higher animals which seeks to explain the Mind/Body connection. (See: Unified Theory of Psychology)
The mind is the most powerful and least understood body-system. However we choose to understand the existence and role of the mind, I personally believe our health, and the process of healing, starts there. Mindfulness and awareness, under an umbrella term of enlightenment—be it academic, spiritual, or both—are what the individuals in this piece (including me) have in common. The ‘mind’ work that took place after the diagnosis is the common denominator.
Summarized as a collective: Nancy talked about trust and following the light: the bliss. Kathy let go of things that took up so much energy and created a stress free schedule; she turned inward to family, accessed meditation, and upped her game on farming organic food. Bailey engaged in a soulful way through her faith and positive mindset. Irene focused on the fulfillment of self—she wanted to live her purpose.
Their responses were heavily nuanced in gratitude and a sense of purpose in that they had more to do.
Collectively, we engaged mindfulness in our own unique ways. We went inside ourselves. We opened ourselves to learning, and we listened to the sage inside, and we went to the wall in answering some life-affirming questions regarding purpose. We were also inspired by others and/or found mentors along the way.
I believe every person diagnosed with cancer can learn from these mindsets and become uniquely exceptional throughout their journey.
Photo credit: BigstockPhoto.com/sonnydaez