Medicine travels in many wrong directions and up many blind alleys, but perhaps the most wrongheaded path of all is its image of disease as an inevitable progression toward death. You are healthy, you get ill and you either hold the monster at bay, in some cases for many years, or it kills you.
In other words, with certain notable exceptions such as infection, once the machine is broken, it never truly works in the same way again.
Certainly, that is how medicine - and consequently we, the public - conceive of cancer. Once we are in its grip, if we don’t manage to cut it out, burn it out or poison it, it’s going to get us. Cancer is Hitler and we are Poland. The pogrom and its victory are always a heartbeat away.
Except that, in some cases, Poland wins without having to pick up a single weapon.
For this month’s cover story, we’ve examined those types of cancers that are not an automatic death sentence - cancers like ductal carcinoma in situ that burn themselves out or that are so slow-growing that we are likely to go to our graves with them, and often without ever knowing it. In the process, our cover story turned into a meditation about what exactly cancer is and what sorts of resources we need to call up within ourselves to turn the situation around.
Sabine Gaier, the wife of WDDTY columnist Harald Gaier, used to work in a British hospice. A hospice is universally accepted as the final port of call for cancer victims, a one-way hotel. You check in when the disease has entered its terminal phase, and it is tacitly assumed by all involved that you will only leave in a body bag. Nevertheless, Harald once told me, perhaps two or three patients each year check out of the hospice - alive and apparently cured.
These survivors fascinated Harald. He talked with Sabine about what characteristics separated them from ordinary cancer victims.
They were not resigned to their fate, he discovered, but they were also not fighters, battling those rogue cells with all their might. They were people who just were not allowing their cancer to occupy much of their lives. It might be Wednesday, they had to go shopping and had to do their laundry and . . . oh, right, they might remember they also have cancer.
I saw this attitude with my mother-in-law Edie, who was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, as readers of my book What Doctors Don’t Tell You may recall. For seven years, she reversed the cancer by following a regime devised by Dr Patrick Kingsley, but then her husband became ill and she couldn’t leave him to travel up to Dr Kingsley’s clinic.
So eventually, she did nothing. She didn’t have much time to think about her cancer, and the cancer more or less stayed at bay - until her husband died. Then she had nothing left to live for and the cancer got her, just six months after her husband’s death.
Before he died, in a sense, Edie didn’t have time for cancer.
The point is, a disease like cancer is just a state - something that can progress or recede, according to where you are in your life. There is nothing inevitable about it. I grow convinced that health and illness are influenced by the spectrum of influences in our lives - our food, air, and the level of allergens, chemicals and other poisons we’re exposed to - but mostly by our mental and emotional states. Clean up your life and it’s likely you’ll get rid of your cancer.
It may well be that, to paraphrase William Shakespeare, there is no illness but thinking makes it so.
Of course, we all have to look after our bodies and eat the right things. But even more important may be how you choose to live your life. Create a fruitful and fulfilled life of giving to others, to the world and to yourself, and it may be that you will never have time for cancer.