How to Be a Survivor
Mind-body expert Bernie Siegel on love, laughter, and talking back to your doctor.
BY: Interview by Wendy Schuman
What was the reception initially to your ideas on healing, and how has it changed?
Literally 40 years ago I wrote to deans of medical schools I either went to or I was working at to tell them that they made me a wonderful technician, but I didn't know how to take care of my patients or myself. The administrators, doctors-you just got into arguments and yelling matches about how much money it would cost to change the policy at the hospital. Or you got ignored. So I just stopped and did things myself--and a few years later you're talking to a room full of doctors and no one's yelling at you because they've seen that it works.
It seemed as though these ideas have become widespread. But are health professionals really listening?
When a dean of a major medical school [Case Western Reserve] introduces you, you know you've come a long way. I think they are listening. That's why I gave up my practice ten years ago. I realized that if I could talk to a group of physicians or medical students, it was going to have a greater impact on numbers of patients. So now I'm lecturing and teaching.
You've said that love heals-have you seen any studies that bear this out?
There was a study done of Harvard students-asking them, did your parents love you or not? Of those who said yes, 28% had suffered an illness by midlife, roughly 35 years later, compared to 98% of those who said "My parents didn't love me." It didn't matter if the parents had divorced, committed suicide, or were alcoholics, the important question was did they love you or not. So when you have self-esteem, self-worth, and love, you live a different life.
The spiritual message is we lose our lives in pleasing others; if you're the good child who pleases mommy and daddy but internalizes anger, you're setting yourself up for disease.
Let's say you're diagnosed with cancer or another illness-what should you do besides find the best medical care you can?
I would say, act and behave "as if" you are the person you want to become. I tell people to look at survivors-what do they do? The thing you see in survivors is that they express feelings-I won't say some of the things they tell their doctors, when doctors tell them they're going to die in six months. Boy, do they let the doctor know how they feel about that statement.
And survivors seek wisdom, they read books, they go on the internet. They'll seek information and look into various treatments so that when they walk into the doctors and they know.