Cancer survivor boosts mind-body medicine

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      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.”

      Comments

      13 Comments

      Bruce

      Feb 4, 2015 at 4:52pm

      Stress DOES NOT cause cancer. If there is any link, it's a very weak one.

      The idea that it does is a vicious, cruel lie promoted by the "alt med" industry, that results in cancer victims judging themselves and being judged.

      Stress has a strong link to such things as heart health, but despite many attempts, no strong link has been found to cancer. Occasional one-off studies showing weak correlations, of the sort alt-med loves to throw around to shill their wares, is not strong evidence.

      This guy has something to sell. Buyer beware.

      http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/29/health/29canc.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

      Educate Yourself

      Feb 6, 2015 at 2:49pm

      Quoting the Canadian Cancer Society Website:
      "Psychological stress can affect our health. Researchers know that stress, especially chronic stress, can weaken the immune system. The immune system defends our bodies against infections and diseases, such as cancer."
      Here's Link http://www.cancer.ca/en/cancer-information/cancer-101/what-is-a-risk-fac...

      Best Article on the effects of stress on your brain: http://www.med.uottawa.ca/Nsc/assets/documents/5311a-Joels2005.pdf

      Inspirational

      Feb 6, 2015 at 7:45pm

      Bruce,

      It is quite unfortunate that you think "this guy has something to sell" rather than sharing his story to empower others fighting through this terrible illness. He is quite an inspiration, It is quite ignorant of you to make a statement like this. He is an inspiration to everyone, and yes there is a correlation between stress and the weaken immune system. Furthermore, there have been studies that found that stress triggers a 'master switch' gene called ATF3. This corrupts the immune system, giving cancer an fast-track around body.

      Opst

      Feb 9, 2015 at 7:08am

      Dunno why anyone would be so keen on denying the link.

      This took me a second to find, I'm sure there are plenty more like it:

      Stress worsens cancer outcomes:

      http://researchnews.osu.edu/archive/ATF3.htm

      I'm very surprised at this article

      Feb 10, 2015 at 10:07am

      "Terminal cancer" almost always is measured as 3-6 months to live, not two years. Moreover, stage 4 cancer means that the disease has metastasized beyond the original site, which would mean that he didn't just have lymphoma, but other types of cancer as well. I wonder why the article glosses over this. Not calling him a liar, but... but I can't think of a way to finish that sentence.

      Bruce

      Feb 10, 2015 at 1:13pm

      @educateyourself

      From your link:

      "Studies have looked at the relationship between psychological factors, including stress, and cancer risk, but there are conflicting results...Most studies found that stress does not increase the risk of cancer. Research has not proven a definite cause-and-effect relationship between psychological stress and cancer development."

      Contrast that with the strong link between stress and risks to mental health, or heart disease. Stress definitely affects health in many ways. But the effect on cancer is weak.

      @Opst

      Your link is firstly, a single study. In medical research, that doesn't mean much. Even if there is a plausible mechanism, that says little about whether there is a link in the very messy real world.

      The problem is that new-agey types desperately want there to be a connection between "negative thinking" or "spiritual ill-health" and physical health. Cancer is bad, negative thinking is bad .... cancer! Nope, sorry, that's underpants-gnome logic.

      I know you want to believe that by Clean Living (tm) you'll be better than everybody else, and it won't happen to you, but the sad fact is that only about 50% of cancer is "preventable", and the other 50% is purely bad luck. And except for lung cancer, in individual cases, nobody knows which is which. So stop victim-blaming. And especially, stop being such a-holes and trying to profit from victim-blaming. And passive-aggressive victim-blaming? Just as bad.

      Bruce

      Feb 10, 2015 at 1:16pm

      @ Inspirational

      "yes there is a correlation between stress and the weaken immune system"

      That was a viable theory, maybe 20 years ago. But mice engineered to have no immune system at all turn out to not get much more cancer. Cancer is nearly invisible to the immune system, because it's the body's own tissue.

      JF

      Feb 10, 2015 at 4:52pm

      Alternative medicine, cleanses, and fruit drinks didn't do much for Steve Jobs.

      Moebius Stripper

      Feb 10, 2015 at 5:11pm

      Could the Straight pay Bruce or "I'm very surprised" to write an article about cancer? They clearly knows more about it than Johnson and Curtis, who are profiting from false hope, and should be compensated for their knowledge.

      Molly

      Feb 13, 2015 at 2:47pm

      My belief is it's the stress caused by repressed emotions rather than stress itself. We can feel stressed whilst doing something we are passionate about, something that makes us feel alive, pushing our selves in ways that strengthen and enervate. Attempting to deny painful feelings by medicating / self medicating, avoidant behaviours, 'keeping it all inside' hurts us, leading to a joyless lifeless life. Our emotions are a huge part of what makes us human beings, to repress them, not letting them out, acts like a poison.