I’ve gotten some entertainment the past few months sifting through all the shady, pseudo-scientific treatments on the woo-woo side of complementary cancer care: reiki, neuro linguistic programming, emotional freedom technique, thought field therapy, energy healing, crystal healing, psychic surgery, and guided imagery are some that come to mind. Visualization and “the power of positive thinking” are probably the most common and least controversial methods in this category.
While none of these is supported by evidence-based science that I’ve read, I don’t question anecdotal reports that they’ve helped some individuals. The wackiest woo woo bullshit can still trigger the placebo effect and practitioners can benefit from the undeniable and ever more scientifically proven mind-body connection. The mind-body connection is no longer just a way for your hippie mom to embarrass you at the doctor. More and more research is being done to prove both the negative impact of stress on health and the benefits of positive thinking.
The field of psychoneuroimmunology, or the study of the mind’s impact on health and disease, has become fully legitimized in the past two decades.
“Research has documented the mechanisms through which stressful emotions alter white blood cell function. Stress diminishes white blood cell response to viral infected cells and to cancer cells. Moreover, vaccination is less effective in those who are stressed and wounds heal less readily in those who are stressed.” [1,2]
Reducing Stress to Avoid New Damage
I’m a high stress person. I know. It’s been one of my defining characteristics since high school and, while I think my perfectionism, control enthusiasm, and feelings of personal responsibility for EVERY SINGLE THING THAT HAPPENS IN THE WORLD lends me a certain undeniable charm, I’ve battled against it for 28 years now. That’s over a quarter century of near-constant, low-grade panic (Lexapro really took the edge off for 5 years of that).
Stress hormones triggered by fight-or-flight emotions are well known to cause inflammation and burden the immune system. Researchers at Stanford concluded that a change of beliefs practice known as cognitive reappraisal is a far more effective and healthier solution that attempting to repress or ignore negative emotions  and I’ve been adopting the technique.
The cognitive reappraisal technique involves mentally rewriting a stressful scenario such that the brain is tricked into reducing the stress response. When something pisses me off and I feel my special brand of Maggie anxiety-rage building (classic fight-or-flight but it always feels so uniquely personal), I rewrite the scenario in such a way that it reduces the crazy stress symptoms.
When someone swerves out of lanes without using her turn indicator and cuts me off, I’m inclined to want to play Justice League of the highway and punish her. Tailgate her to her destination so I can passive-aggressively apologize for getting in her way, that kind of thing. But would I feel the same way if I knew she was just distracted and rushing to get to the hospital before her spouse dies after her boss made her stay late at the job she hates but has to keep so she can pay the medical bills? I would not. Well I just assume that’s the case, then.
Or take the woman who was a total bitch to me at the FedEx back in August the memories of whom still make my blood boil and hands shake. I like to assume she’d just walked out on her abusive boyfriend and had too much going on in her mind to be civil. No worries! Sorry for asking you to correct the mailing address. You go, girl!
It turns out that I personally feel a whole lot better when I can give a potential offender the benefit of the doubt.
Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.Malachy McCourt
I hope that as I improve at the technique I can keep my sympathetic nervous system in check and use more energy for healing and less for writing angry yelp reviews in my head.
Visualization is one of the woo woo treatments I buy into. I was gushing just a few posts ago about how smart the human body is to know what energy source to metabolize yada yada… Well the body is also kind of dumb and will often fall for whatever the mind tells it to believe – even when we know the mind is lying.
Of course I don’t believe in it, but I understand it brings you luck, whether you believe in it or not.Punchline to a joke normally attributed to Niels Bohr after being asked why a man of science would own a lucky charm.
I mean, the placebo effect is one thing but I’m talking deeper than that. A randomized, controlled Harvard study for IBS in 2010 comparing a placebo treatment to no treatment showed that participants received positive benefit from the placebo even though they knew it was a placebo! 
As shocking as that should be, for me it seems somewhat intuitive: if we tell ourselves something enough times, we’ll eventually believe it. So anyway, yes, I’ve been doing some visualization exercises.
The Detail View
I try to spend time each day, usually before bed or if I wake up in the middle of the night, imaging my tumor cells dying and being removed by my immune system. I’m a weirdo so I had to do a lot of study to understand how this happens/ what it would look like before it would work for me. I finally have a visual of cancer cell apoptosis or immune NK cells destroying the cancer cells. However it happens, my favorite part is the macrophages rolling through to engulf the cellular debris before transporting it to the lymph system to eventually be broken down and handled by the liver. Titillating stuff.
I’m not a super visual person so I tend to focus more on the idea/ feeling. I imagine blind people take a similar approach. I’d love to see research on whether there’s a correlation between anphantasia and cancer mortality.
I kept nitpicking my visual and heading to the computer to look up some detail so eventually developed a more metaphorical visual instead. For me, that’s light (internal/ universal/ kundalini/ God/ whatever you call it) dissolving the cancer. That’s mine; you do you.
The Big Picture
Imaging each of my billions of cancer cells’ individual deaths probably won’t get me far very fast, so I’m also trying to adopt a bigger picture vision.
Olivia Cabane’s The Charisma Myth suggests another use for the cognitive reappraisal technique discussed above: rewriting the future. Rather than just telling myself a story to justify someone stealing my parking space, I write the story of my successful cancer healing as if it were a done deal. Per Cabane, “When you’re dealing with a more serious situation, sit down and write out a new reality on a piece of paper. Writing accesses a different part of our brain and affects our beliefs in ways that other modes of expression do not. The act of committing things to writing has been shown to be critical both in changing a person’s mind and in making imagined stories feel more real.”
It seems silly but the last few nights I’ve pulled out a sheet of paper and written about how my TKIs keep working, I’m able to return to work full time, Brad and I go back to Ireland for our ten-year anniversary in 2020, this blog helps comfort others with the same diagnosis, I finish my god awful novel, and I learn to play the accordion.
I have a similar challenge with this exercise as I do with visualization:I really try to keep things realistic. I don’t go into complete remission, I don’t win the lottery, etc. I feel like anything too pipe-dreamy will discredit the whole scenario. I doubt that’s the case, though, and I intend to start dreaming bigger in these future rewrites.
This is one of my favorite posts. 🙂
Well in that case I added it to the homepage features 🙂
Thank you for being so real. I am in the same boat. Fake it in possibility land with the faith that it’s working!
Thank you so much!! You inspired me to re-read this and I remembered I used to be funny, lol.
Two and a half years later I’m so so deep into the woowoo… I can never even admit most of it on this blog dedicated to the evidence-based =D All I’ll say is *definitely * keep faking it!