By the time Steve Curtis was 20, he had a staff of 20 working for him at ZAG Group, the Vancouver company he’d started the year before that develops nutraceuticals, ethnobotanicals, and dietary supplements. His singular mission was to make money. Yet even though his organization kept growing, he wasn’t fulfilled. Looking back now, he describes himself then as insecure and unhappy. He experienced anxiety and depression, took sleeping pills regularly, and overindulged in alcohol. It took a diagnosis of terminal cancer when he was 24 for Curtis’s life to do a 180.
That was nine years ago, and Curtis hasn’t just beaten the advanced lymphoma that doctors said was untreatable and would kill him within two years; he’s also become a vocal proponent of mind-body medicine. He recently founded the Perception Medicine Foundation, which aims to increase scientific research into and understanding of the role the mind plays in the development and advancement of illness—and in its regression and reversal as well.
Curtis recalls what was going on in his life when he first noticed an unusual spot on his chest that would later turn out to be one of many. The spots were a sign of the rare and aggressive peripheral T-cell lymphoma. “I was a hurting, untrusting, anxious, sad, depressed guy,” the Edmonton native says in an interview at his office near Chinatown. “I had stomachaches, I had exhaustion. Inside, there was a massive hurt and a longing for something more.”
Curtis says once he got the news, he made a decision then and there to find a way to cure his cancer, no matter how poor his prognosis seemed. He began a process of what he calls confronting the shadow. He dug deep to understand why he was so discontented. He says his unhappiness stemmed from the loneliness he suffered as a smart, overweight kid with ADHD who was expelled in Grade 6. (He later returned to school.) Going into adulthood, he says the way he perceived himself and his world wasn’t positive.
With his diagnosis and his determination to beat the odds, he researched the immune system and embraced yoga, meditation, reiki, hypnosis, and other stress-reducing techniques. The way he explains it, he opened his heart and healing followed without radiation or chemotherapy.
“The cancer stopped progressing as I gave myself more time in a peaceful, joyful place of relaxing and meditating and [doing] yoga and letting go,” he says. “After work, I went home and I painted or listened to an audio book or went for a walk. I dedicated more of my life to the service of others, which I find so deeply fulfilling I feel goose bumps. I regularly feel tears of gratitude and joy.…As I engaged more in the world, it [the cancer] continued to go away.”
He also set a goal of climbing Mount Everest. By the time he made it back down from that menacing mountain, the spots had disappeared, and he’s been in remission ever since. A fan of the personal-development workshops known as the Mastery, he’s convinced that if he can do it, anyone can. That’s why he wants to support research into and deepen people’s understanding of psychoneuroimmunology and mind-body medicine through the Perception Medicine Foundation. For its work, he’s bringing together some of the world’s experts in the field. Harvard Medical School mind-body-medicine pioneer Dr. Herbert Benson is on the advisory board, which also includes researcher Kelly Turner, author of Radical Remission: Surviving Cancer Against All Odds.
In a phone interview from her New York City office, Turner explains that exploring cases like Curtis’s isn’t about instilling false hope in people with cancer, or any other disease, but rather pushing the boundaries of scientific inquiry. When she started researching radical or “spontaneous” remission, she was shocked to learn there were more than 1,000 such cases documented in medical journals, and yet the subject remained taboo. No one was bothering to study those cases or even track them; she says many survivors told her that doctors encouraged them not to tell anyone their story of apparently miraculous recovery. Just because something can’t be explained, she reasoned, is no reason for it to be avoided; in fact, that should be a draw to scientists.
“It’s only false hope if what you’re reporting is false,” Turner says. “These people really did have cancer, they really were sent to the hospice by doctors to die, and they really did turn around and are well now. That’s all true. What would be false would be for me to say, ‘If you do what they did, you’ll get better.’…A good researcher should be investigating things they can’t explain; that’s the whole point of moving science forward.
“What we’ve been doing by ignoring and silencing these cases over the last 100 years is we’ve been hindering our ability to possibly cure cancer,” she adds, “and to move cancer research forward.”
She and others who are interested in the mind-body connection aren’t against conventional treatments such as chemotherapy. However, they feel this area of research remains grossly overlooked by western medicine.
“Most people that go to a physician never get asked about stress,” says Vancouver doctor Gabor Maté, author of several books, including When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress. “You talk to the vast majority of people with any chronic illness, and no doctor has ever asked them about their lives, their childhood, and their stresses. It’s all about focusing just on the physical aspects, and that’s I think what needs to change. That’s why this work [of the PMF] is so needed, to bring it home to people that illnesses are not random-chance, unfortunate events but they do arise out of a certain unconscious set of beliefs about yourself and your situation in life.
“Lots of people come to understand illness as an enemy—it’s the war on cancer or you’re battling illness,” he says. “But there’s another way to look at it, that illness comes along to teach us something.…Therapy is one essential aspect of healing, whether it’s an autoimmune illness or cancer or a neurological disease or multiple sclerosis. Once you deal with the acute medical emergency, therapy ought to be part of treatment in every case.”
Curtis, meanwhile, has ambitious goals for the foundation. He’s hoping to produce a documentary film featuring a small group of people with terminal cancer and help them down the same path of emotional, mental, and spiritual healing that he travelled. He wants to open more people’s eyes to the healing power of the mind. “The modern medical system disempowers us,” he says. “I see something different and powerful in healing through love and peace and joy. That’s the truth we’re bringing to the world.”