The connection between cancer and emotional states was observed nearly 2000 years ago by the physician Galen who noted that “cheerful women were less prone to cancer than were women of a depressed nature,” according to Dr. O. Carl Simonton in his book “Getting Well Again.” By the late 1960s, Dr. Herbert Benson, a cardiologist at Harvard, and Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist, each separately noted numerous health benefits among patients who practiced meditation.
But in the 1970s, Simonton took the mind-body connection a step further. As a radiation oncologist, he noticed that some of his patients with serious diagnoses would live and thrive, while others with more manageable cancers declined rapidly. He surmised, like Galen before him, that psychological and emotional factors were at work, with the most pervasive and dangerous among them being a sense of hopelessness.
After researching the results of tests conducted in the late 1960s by Robert Rosenthal and his colleagues on “expectancy effects” (think self-fulfilling prophecies), Simonton developed specific protocols to give patients a sense of control and optimism. He guided patients through visualization sessions to mobilize T-cells (a type of white blood cell) and taught them relaxation techniques and simple meditation.
Many responded very well to the approach. Soon, patients from all over sought Simonton’s help. He developed a stand-alone retreat week where patients could learn the tools and techniques and then return home to continue with their medical treatments.
Much of the medical community remained doubtful about Simonton’s results. Since a full 30 percent of all test subjects exhibit the placebo effect automatically, many chalked Simonton’s results up to nothing more than that.
“Some of it may be tied into the placebo effect, yes. But it’s more than just the placebo effect; it’s a focused, directed approach,” said Dr. Renato Monaco, a practicing psychiatrist in Newport Beach, California. Monaco met Simonton many years ago along with one of Simonton’s patients who’d recently been diagnosed with a terminal, stage-4 brain tumor.
“The patient was a singer. Every other doctor had given up on him,” says Monaco, “But I ran into the patient again 10 years later. I was amazed. He sang for us.”
While the medical community agrees that there is power in thought and emotions, most doctors still don’t understand how the biochemistry of human emotions and thoughts work.