Sometimes even yoga isn’t enough   Leave a comment

Breathe in, breathe out… my preferred form of health care. I write this response fresh from Bikram yoga, my holistic healing method, which has all but cured my carpal tunnel, improves my Interstitial Cystitis, is an effective approach to stress management, and perhaps (with that said) might be considered cancer prevention. Healthy mind, healthy body. Healthy spine, long life. While this may or may not be true, perhaps our belief in its truth is enough to produce a healthy body and long life. This is somewhat at odds with traditional biomedical approaches which rely more on the mind/body split than a sense of unity between mind and body. However, as Stacey explores, alternative, holistic approaches and beliefs are finding their way into conventional medicine.

This week’s reading took me back to every Thursday and Friday in the last eight months of 2009, the days we spent twelve hours a piece at MD Anderson throughout my mother’s chemo. I don’t like to continually bring my personal experience into my discussions, but sometimes it’s just too fitting not to. Stacey rehearses the clichés: “A positive attitude makes recovery more likely; mind over matter will conquer the disease; listen to your cancer, it may have something to tell you” (26). Clichés such as “healthy body, healthy mind” apply to cancer prevention as well as treatment. “Many alternative approaches to cancer imply that the person with cancer can determine the course of their illness through sheer willpower. They construct a model of health in which if you do all the right things for your body (feed it well, love it, encourage it, relax it, and so on) then it will be good to you and stay (or become) healthy” (186).

My mother was a model of positivity and strength. She did everything “right,” including getting up and dressed and wearing makeup (even for chemo) with the hope that the “look good, feel good” philosophy would work for her. She continued working as much as possible, planned future vacations, and friends visited frequently. She survived, she is recovering—great. But we saw many patients who went through treatment with her who won’t survive, no matter how “good” they looked or how optimistic their attitude. For many patients, all the positivity and yoga in the world isn’t enough to save them or keep them from “getting” cancer in the first place.

If I get cancer, does it mean I have not done everything I could to prevent it? Does it mean I have lived a life that fostered the very condition that could end it? Was it my mother’s job? All those years of stress? Or was it my teenage rebellion? My father’s drinking? The black hair dye she continually used throughout her adult life? If I get cancer, is it my fault? Was it my mother’s fault? When my mom was diagnosed with Lymphoma in early 2009, I secretly feared I caused it and this text brought that concern to the forefront of my mind. “According to several accounts, the fertile ground for the onset of cancer is provided by the destructive impact of stress, trauma and loss on the body of the patient” (117). I was an extremely rebellious teenager and my mother started developing various illnesses during that time. She developed asthma and allergies, respiratory infections, and was hospitalized twice for an inability to breathe. Eventually we both got better and life returned to normal, healthy, and happy. Of course it did not stay that way and when my mom was diagnosed, I wondered to myself if it was my fault.

“In conventional medicine, illness is understood as an exclusively bodily process,” following Descartes’ mind/body separation (107). Conversely, holistic medicine, as well as our understanding of illnesses such as cancer as mind- and body-based diseases, emphasizes the connectivity between one’s mind and one’s body. I had heard that stress and negative mental states could cause cancer but until reading Stacey’s detailing of the Simonson model, did not understand how or why. As the Simonson model suggests: “What is referred to here as the ‘mind’ is actually the physiological processes through which emotions are processed in the body. In their model of cancer development, for example, feelings of despair, resulting from stress, are processed by the ‘limbic system’ (the visceral brain) which records stress and its effects. This is then passed on by ‘the hypothalamus’ […] which triggers a hormonal imbalance in the body and suppresses the immune system, leaving the body susceptible to the growth of abnormal cells” (113). From this view, one might wonder where any division between the mind and the body exists; if thoughts and emotions are physiological processes, then how can our minds be considered separate entities? And if our mind and body are in union with one another, then why can’t we self-diagnose? Why don’t we just know what is wrong with us? Such is the dilemma Descartes furthered.

Part of the “mythology” of cancer that enables heroes to emerge is the way it seems to “befall” people. It can strike anyone at anytime; no one is immune. Popular cultural heroes like Patrick Swayze and now Michael Douglas struggle under a watchful public eye, their “battles” publicized and serving as reminders of how unexpected and fierce cancer can be. There is a tension between this idea that we can cause or cure our own cancer and the fact that it often strikes so unexpectedly and viciously that one may not stand a chance.

All these issues make me wonder about the implications of “self-causation,” especially for patients. Is it easier to blame the environment or freak causes than one’s self for something as grave as cancer? Does it matter? This question can also be applied to HIV/AIDS and Chris’ discussion point around that.

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Posted October 26, 2010 by Lela in Uncategorized

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