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by Bernie Siegel, Md
Cancer & Survivor Personalities
have been counseling cancer patients in support groups and death is preferable to life and for others the only way for them to
individually for over thirty years and it has been very therapeu- get attention is to be sick.
tic for me too, as I try to live the sermon. What got me started What I have learned from my life and that of my patients is
on my journey of enlightenment was one of my patients. We were that you cannot separate your life from your health. Monday we
both at a workshop, which I thought was intended for physicians, have more heart attacks, strokes, suicides and illnesses. Going
but only three were there amongst over a hundred patients. She home to a house with a dog after having a heart attack reduced
said to me, “You’re a nice guy. I feel better when I am in the office the mortality rate at the end of twelve months, in one study, from
with you but I can’t take you home with me. So I need to know 26% to 5%. Women with the same cancers as men live longer and
how to live between office visits”. married men live longer than single men with the same cancers. It
She shifted me from feeling helpless about not being able to is not female hormones and sleeping with them that is protective;
cure every patient to feeling that I could help them all to live. So it is our connections and relationships that are significant.
I sent a hundred letters out to our cancer patients inviting them Our internal chemistry relates to our feelings. In his book The
to join a group and “live a longer, healthier life”. I was in a panic Biology of Belief, geneticist Bruce Lipton talks about genes and
expecting they would bring friends and relatives with cancer and the fact that they do not make decisions. Identical twin sisters do
I would have hundreds of people to work with. I realized I didn’t not get the same disease on the same day. The sister more likely
know my patients and their will to live when less than a dozen to develop breast cancer is the good girl, who pleases her parents
women came to the first group session. and others and internalizes her anger and not her little devil of a
What I began to learn is that there is a survivor personality. twin. To quote a patient, “My mother’s words were eating away at
Psychiatrist Dr. George Solomon calls it an immune competent me and maybe gave me cancer”. She had to get cancer to start liv-
personality from his work with AIDS patients. I will share the ing and buy a red dress since her mother only dressed her in dark
qualities of these people shortly. First, I began to see that if you colors so she wouldn’t be noticed and embarrass the family.
helped people to live they didn’t die when they were supposed As science has opened its mind we are seeing studies dem-
to. I have shared, in my books, about some of these people whose onstrating the truth in these statements. A recent study at UCLA
disease disappeared and whom doctors call spontaneous remis- showed that people who felt lonely activated the genes that con-
sions. trolled immune system activity. Loneliness was related to feelings
In his book Cancer Ward, Solzhenitsyn, who had cancer him- of isolation and separation, and not about how many people you
self, helped me to wake up with his description of these cases. He knew but your lack of closeness to anyone. These people were
writes about the men sitting around the ward and one of them more likely to develop autoimmune disorders, viral infections
has a medical textbook that he reads from, “It says here there are and cancer. So you can see how loss affects the surviving spouse
cases of self induced healing, not recovery through treatment but and family members. Other studies done in the past by Dr. Caro-
actual healing...see.” It was as though self induced healing flut- line Thomas, at Johns Hopkins, showed medical students who
tered out of the great open book like a rainbow colored butterfly had a low closeness to parent profile were more likely to develop
for everyone to see, and they all held up their cheeks for its heal- cancer later in life and a recent Harvard study showed that almost
ing touch as it flew past. It was only the gloomy Podduyev who, 100% of students who felt unloved by their parents had experi-
with a hopeless and obstinate expression on his face, croaked enced a major illness by midlife, while 28% of those who felt
out, “I suppose for that you need to have a clear conscience”. loved had experienced a major illness. Many years ago Jungian
I think he says all we need to know about self-healing with
his symbols. Yes, you need a clear conscience related to your
past and life and he tells you how to achieve it. The butterfly is
the symbol of transformation and the rainbow is every color that
represents our life’s emotions. When our emotions are in order
we can heal.
The first reaction I received from other doctors was that I was
creating guilt and blame by bringing up people’s lives when they
had cancer. Yes, in my books I ask questions like what has hap-
pened in the last year or two of your life, what does the disease
mean to you, how do you benefit from your illness, why do you
need an illness and do you want to live to be one hundred? I
didn’t grow up with guilt, blame and shame so I truly did not ap-
preciate what other people were feeling. I was on all the famous
talk shows discussing and explaining the issue. For some people
October 2009
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