When my mother’s breast cancer metastasized in 1991, she was overwhelmed with depression and guilt. She was a failure, she confided in a relative, because she couldn’t muster the optimism to visualize her tumor shrinking. Her death left me with little tolerance for the popular notion that cancer patients can somehow cure themselves. It places an even weightier burden on people burdened enough already. It smacks of victim blaming, as if anyone who dies of the disease just didn’t try hard enough.
So I was dubious about Radical Remission: Surviving Cancer Against All Odds, a bestselling book that describes “nine key factors” that can supposedly make malignancies vanish, by a researcher in the woo-woo-sounding field of “integrative oncology.” But after reading Radical Remission and talking to its author, Kelly A. Turner, PhD, I’m open to her point of view. What Turner isn’t saying is, “Do these nine things and you’ll cure yourself.” Instead she offers insight gleaned from extensive study of a group science has so far ignored: People who inexplicably beat cancer against all odds.
A cancer super survivor is a patient whose disease went into remission either without Western medical intervention or after traditional treatments, such as radiation and chemotherapy, failed. This doesn’t happen often, but still, there are an estimated 100,000 such cases worldwide. Turner has looked into over 1,000 and personally interviewed about 250, asking how they thought they’d outfoxed their disease. About 75 factors regularly came up, nine so frequently that Turner believes they are noteworthy. Only two are physical; the other seven have to do with thoughts and emotions. But, she says, “If there’s a common thread among all nine, it is that they’re all working to strengthen your immune system.”
And that’s no small benefit, she adds. “When doctors say there’s nothing more they can do for you, your immune system is the only tool left in your toolbox.” Turner notes that these factors are in no particular order, and no single one is most important. Not everyone did all nine, and people should only make changes that personally resonate with them.
Super Survivors’ Physical Changes:
1. They overhauled their diets. Many of Turner’s research subjects drastically altered what they ate in the hope of sending their cancer into remission. Some common changes: Quitting sugar and animal products (studies show malignant cells thrive on glucose, and heavy consumption of red meat has been linked with certain cancers), replacing chemical-laden refined foods for organic whole foods, and eating more fruits and vegetables, many of which naturally help protect against cancer. Turner found these changes so compelling that she has adopted them herself. “I was hearing over and over again about the detrimental effects of the standard American diet,” she says. “I actually became a vegetarian during my initial year of research.”
2. They tried herbs and supplements. “I’m not at all against Western medicine,” Turner says. But as her subjects underwent chemotherapy and radiation to kill off cancer cells, they also bolstered their immune systems with vitamins, minerals and herbs. Some mentioned green tea, which includes a cancer-fighting compound, and turmeric, which some studies have shown can boost the immune system. (Important: Talk to your oncologist before taking any herbs or supplements.)
Super Survivors’ Emotional Changes:
3. They took an active role in their own health. Many long-term survivors chose to be engaged, not passive, participants in their own treatment. They researched their condition and questioned their doctors when they thought it necessary.
4. They followed their intuition. Radical Remission subjects tapped into what Turner calls our lost sixth sense: the idea that the body knows what it needs to get better. They paid attention to dreams, meditated, and tried to get in touch with their own ideas about how to heal, not merely doing what others told them.
5. They dumped emotional baggage. Super-survivors practiced letting go of anger, regret, stress, fear, longing or other emotions they believed affected their inner peace. Turner says this is not the same as being relentlessly cheerful. “People tell me, ‘Please tell the world that I did not feel positive all of the time.’ In fact, some of them spent days, weeks and months in terrified, sweat-dripping fear,” she says. Her subjects tried journaling, meditation, therapy and other techniques to learn to handle their feelings.
6. They had more fun. Whether seeking out friends to make them laugh, throwing themselves parties or watching funny videos, Radical Remission survivors made a point to enjoy life the best they could.
7. They leaned on loved ones. “Virtually all of the Radical Remission survivors I study believe that the love they received from others when they were sick actually helped their physical bodies heal,” Turner writes. She encourages cancer patients to reach out to friends and family, ask for help when they need it, and consider attending a cancer support group.
8. They got spiritual. Whether via traditional religion or a less defined sense of connection, subjects worked to connect with what many described as “unconditional, universal love.”
9. They wanted to live. Turner separates what she calls her subjects’ zest for life from the fear of death. Her super-survivors had a strong will to stick around, whether to see their kids grow up or to pursue a calling.
It’s that last one that bugged me. I’m certain my mother wanted to live and am sure it’s true for the overwhelming majority of people with cancer—both those who survive and those who don’t. Aside from that, doesn’t Turner’s entire premise give people false hope that their fate is in their own hands?
I told Turner my misgivings, and it turns out she’s heard them before. “The last thing I want my research to do is to make someone feel bad,” she says. “There’s no place for blaming the victim, and it’s a terrible outcropping of the power of positive thinking if people feel guilty about not feeling positive all the time.”
As for false hope, she says her work is simply a starting point. “People sometimes forget that the scientific method begins with a hypothesis,” says Turner, who has started a website, RadicalRemission.com, where super-survivors can join her research efforts. “False hope is saying, ‘These are nine ways to cure cancer.’ But we won’t really know until we have about 50 years of controlled scientific trials.” Yet it leads one to wonder, if these changes can send cancer into remission, what could they do for prevention?