2016-06-30
For more than 25 years, surgeon Bernie Siegel has been a pioneer in mind-body healing. In his best-selling "Love, Medicine & Miracles" and "Peace, Love & Healing," he wrote of his unorthodox approach to dealing with cancer patients-encouraging them to express their feelings, participate in medical decisions, and use healing methods such as meditation and guided imagery. The founder of ECaP (Exceptional Cancer Patients), Siegel has a new book, "365 Prescriptions for the Soul," coming out in January 2004. He spoke to Beliefnet about the wellness movement.

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.

And another thing they look for is spiritual support-I don't say `religion' because that can be a problem too-it can lead to guilt, shame, and blame. But I mean finding meaning in your life, willingness to say no to things you don't want to do, and asking for help. Being a survivor doesn't mean being strong-it's telling people when you need a meal or a ride, company, whatever. It's paying attention to heart wisdom, feelings, not living a role, but having a unique, authentic life, having something to contribute, finding time to love and laugh. All these things are qualities of survivors. Years ago when I offered patients the chance to be survivors, 80% of them wouldn't show up for a meeting.

What do you mean they wouldn't show up? How did you invite them?
I sent letters out to patients, saying, Come, I'll help you live a longer better life. I expected 500 people to show up. Less than a dozen women appeared, and I thought, Wow, I don't know the people I'm taking care of. Some had no problem dying, if you know what I mean. Their life was a mess-I 'm sick, fine, let me get out of here. Others were afraid to come to a meeting, talk, share feelings. That's why women with the same cancers as men live longer. They share their feelings, have more connections and reasons for living. And it's not about hormones, it's about how you look at it your life, how you behave and act.

I would tell them if you're not treated with respect, it's OK to be angry! You're not the good patient who lies there and has all these mistakes made and maybe ends up dead because maybe they mix you up with somebody else or do the wrong operation. But you become what I call "the character"-they know you as a person. That's not always adversarial. I know patients who bring a dozen roses to the doctor's office. And, boy, the next visit nobody forgets that. You come in and hey-here's the lady who brought the roses vs. here's the lung cancer.

Do you think that the doctor's perception can affect the patients?
Sure, the doctor's consciousness and attitude literally affect you. Consciousness is not local. If I walk in and I'm thinking they're gonna be dead or I don't like taking care of them, or I'm tired and I wish I could get out of here and eat something, I affect the patient. But if I walk in with hope-and hope isn't about statistics, it's about individuals-and I treat them, yes, they will do better. A simple example: Years ago a doctor wrote an article about four cancer drugs, chemotherapeutic agents, that came out. They began with the letters EPOH, so they were called the EPOH protocol. He looked at the letters and thought, Why don't I turn it around and make it HOPE? He noticed that more patients in his program responded to this treatment than to the doctors who were giving it as EPOH. What was the difference? Hope.

When you talk to people about alternative treatment, like meditation and having a positive attitude, how are you received?
I don't try to sell it to people. If people come to me for help sometimes I'll say, are you trying not to die, or do what's right for you? It's not just the things you mentioned-it could be nutrition or exercise, it could be changing your marriage, your relationships, your job. If they say I'm trying not to die, I say do what everyone tells you so you're not mad at yourself. But if they say, yes, I'm trying to do what is right for me, then we sit down and look at all these things. I do a lot of work with drawings-you'll say to someone draw yourself in the operating room and one picture looks like hell and one looks like heaven-and they do very differently.

I'm not there to judge them-like `you're bad, you didn't meditate four times a day.' You can't imagine the guilt and shame people feel-I have letters from people saying, "I feel awful, I've only been meditating twice a day. I'm guilty and I'm not helping myself." I try to change the terminology to say, Take some healing intervals and if you have a wonderful day, don't worry that you forgot to do something. If you have a wonderful day, that's what I want for you. That gets back to the heart, what feels right for you to do.

When you accept your mortality and that you have a limited amount of time here, don't give your power away. If somebody upsets me I don't spend three months being upset because then I'm still giving them the ability to upset me. Don't be so busy making everybody else happy that you forget to speak up for yourself.

Don't some people feel guilty if they haven't been healed of cancer?
I've written about someone who was a landscaper who had cancer surgery but I couldn't cure him. He went home to make the world beautiful before he died. Over 20 years later he died with no sign of cancer. If you say, Wow, why can't I do that-well maybe you can. I look at myself as a coach and if you come to me with inspiration I know you'll be a star. You'll exceed expectations.

Whether you have a so-called miracle or spontaneous remission or self-induced healing, I can't promise you-it's reaching out for it that's important. Look at a Lance Armstrong. Part of why he's alive is because as an athlete he understood that you put in the effort. You may not always win the race and you're not immortal, but you may do things a doctor may not expect.

That's why when I send out an invitation to people, I know the ones who show up are going to do better. They have the passion and determination, and that's what makes the difference.

You talk a lot the healing effects of humor. Can you laugh yourself into wellness?
My definition is what I call childlike humor. It is not offensive, it is not critical of others, you're not putting people down, you're enjoying life. For example, when I go to the doctor's office and they say sign in, I write "in." I get a form that says sign here, I write "here." People start to learn that this guy is like a little kid, and it brings out the kid in them. I always tell people that if you go to a hospital and there's a sign "wet floor," go ahead and do it.

What one thought would you leave us with for the New Year?
The age-old message, the son of man comes not to be served but to serve. I think when you see your life as "How can I contribute love to the world?" you will live a longer healthier life.


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