As Bernie Siegel, M.D., notes in Love, Medicine and Miracles medical statistics can lead both doctors and patients to assume the worst, at a time when hope is essential. Though the statistical odds may be 99 to 1 against recovery from a particular severe illness, there is no way of knowing in advance which one of the next hundred people will be the survivor. Or which two, or three, or more.
Similarly, when a doctor gives a prognosis (predicted outcome) on any case of any kind, he or she is making what amounts to an educated guess. The truth is that no physician ever knows the course of a patient's healing process in advance. It is the doctor's responsibility to share the information he or she has, based on scientific research as well as personal experience. But all patients should remember that each case stands on its own, and its outcome is not dependent on something that happened elsewhere to other people, no matter how large the statistical sample and no matter how compelling the research documentation.
This applies whether we are talking about a surgeon forecasting the life-expectancy of a cancer patient or a chiropractor predicting the length of time a patient will need to recover from severe lower back pain. Patients should, if at all humanly possible, never assume that they are limited to the time-frame in a doctor's prognosis. Otherwise, the prognosis becomes a straightjacket at best, a death sentence at worst.
But just as negative thinking can limit us, positive thinking can mobilize our healing powers. When this occurs, the effect goes beyond the facilitation of physical healing; an enhanced sense of personal purpose and meaning can emerge as a byproduct.
One of the pioneer works documenting the power of the mind in healing is Getting Well Again, a 1978 book by O. Carl Simonton, M.D., Stephanie Mathews-Simonton, and James Creighton. Dr. Simonton, a radiation oncologist, got his first inkling of the power of the mind in healing early in his career when, as a physician at Travis Air Force Base in California, he ran a research study of 152 cancer patients, and found that "a positive attitude toward treatment was a better predictor of response to treatment than was the severity of the disease."
This led Simonton in a new direction, in which he combined visualization exercises and counseling with the standard radiation therapy, and found that many of his cancer patients achieved outcomes far better than expected.
After learning a progressive relaxation exercise, in which they mentally relaxed their bodies step by step, the patients visualized their cancers being overwhelmed by "tiny bullets of energy." Then they pictured their weakened and dying cancer cells being flushed out through their livers and kidneys by their own white blood cells. Simonton's stunning results generated great controversy within the medical profession, since they confounded the then-current conventional wisdom that cancer was something that "happens to people," something over which patients can have little or no personal control.
Simonton described his initial results as follows: "In the last four years, we have treated 159 patients with a diagnosis of medically incurable malignancy. Sixty-three of the patients are alive, with an average survival time of 24.4 months since the diagnosis. Life expectancy for this group, based on national norms, is 12 months . . . With the patients in our study who have died, their average survival time was 20.3 months. In other words, the patients in our study who are alive have lived, on the average, two times longer than patients who received medical treatment alone. Even those patients in the study who have died still lived one and one-half times longer than the control group."
After four years, the status of the patients still living was as follows: