At 63, Claire Haser was looking forward to a quiet retirement in Hawaii when she was diagnosed with pancreatic adeno-carcinoma, the most lethal form of pancreatic cancer, which kills 96 percent of those it affects within five years. The former healthcare administrator was offered Whipple surgery, a risky and invasive treatment which would remove part of her pancreas and stomach, leaving her in her debilitating pain. But she decided against it after watching hours of YouTube footage of Whipple patients writhing in agony.
Instead, Haser changed her diet, shifting towards plant-based foods and eliminating sugar; and, psychologically, she accepted the inevitability of her own demise, forgiving those with whom she had quarrelled and embracing friends and family in her tight community in Portland, on the west coast of the United States. In 2013, five years after her dismal prognosis, Hasers doctors were baffled when a CT scan showed the tumour had vanished.
Dr Jeff Rediger uses Hasers story at the beginning of his provocative new book, Cured: The Remarkable Science and Stories of Spontaneous Healing and Recoveries, to help his readers understand the phenomenon of spontaneous remission: recoveries that cannot be explained by conventional medicine.
Historically, doctors have tended to ignore stories like Hasers because they are not seen to hold medical value. Rediger writes: We have almost never used the tools of rigorous science to investigate remarkable recoveries from incurable illnesses its as if were embarrassed.
A psychiatrist on the faculty at Harvard Medical School, and director of the Harvard-affiliated McLean SouthEast adult psychiatry programme, Rediger draws heavily from the thinking of Claude Bernard, a French physiologist who argued in the 1860s that illness could not be explained only by germ theory, the dominant explanation for viruses since the 19th Century, which attributes illness to the spread of deadly pathogens. Bernard said it is also worth considering our milieu interieur, or inner environment. Viruses only attach themselves inside our body because we have poor immune systems, he argued, in much the same way that deadly mosquitoes assemble at stagnant water; they do not make the water stagnant in the first place. To impress his students, Bernard even drank a glass of cholera-infected water, explaining that the fact he did not become ill was because of his healthy inner terrain.
And the best way you can strengthen your own inner terrain, Rediger says, is by soothing chronic inflammation, which he describes as the immune system gone awry. Inflammation is the redness and swelling found in your skin or tissue when it gets infected; it is a sign of your immune system fighting germs, and it normally comes and goes within hours. But problems occur when inflammation persists, wearing down the bodys tissue and creating conditions that are ripe for disease.
He meets Juniper Stein, for example, an accountant from Philadelphia who was diagnosed in her twenties with autoimmune disease (AS); her immune system mistakenly believed it had found an enemy virus, and sent out armies of defend and repair cells to the sacroiliac area of her pelvis. As a result, her body became locked in a vicious cycle of inflammation. She took Naproxen, an anti-inflammation medicine, but eventually abandoned it after deciding it was having little effect. She turned instead to a daily practice of yoga and Rolfing, an intense form of massage, and felt her pain gradually disappear. Three decades later, there is no trace of AS in her body.
By focusing his attention on inflammation, Rediger builds on a growing body of research which blames the over-active immune system for a range of ailments, including debilitating physical conditions like chronic fatigue syndrome or Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME). It has even be linked to mental illness; in last years book, The Inflamed Mind, Ed Bullmore argues that some cases of depression might be caused by inflammation, and argues for the integration of mental and physical care within the NHS.
Changing your diet is another way of soothing inflammation. Rediger recommends eliminating toxins by cutting out all processed foods and sugar. 100 years ago, wed eat four pounds of sugar a year. Now we eat 154 pounds. Ive seen my own health transform because Ive followed [this advice]. I cant get sick anymore.
Perhaps the most exciting of Redigers recommendations is his chapter on stress reduction and positive social interaction, or spending time with the people you love and the people who make you laugh, as he puts it. Historically, he says, doctors have struggled to discuss so-called healing heart because of its proximity to the controversial world of faith healers. Some of his doctor friends have gone as far as to keep their faith a secret.
But now he thinks we are seeing the emergence of a modern spirituality, which focuses on how a positive outlook can improve your physical health, and is perfectly compatible with medicine and science. They are deeply complementary and not at all bitter bedfellows, says Rediger, who was raised in an Amish family and, on top of his esteemed medical qualifications, earned a degree in divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary.
Indeed, he says there is strong evidence that positive emotions boost our immune system because they stimulate serotonin and dopamine, the pleasure hormones; and turn down cortisol and norepinephrine, the stress hormones. He quotes Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina, who has shown in study after study that small moments of connection with the people around us - everybody from our husband or wife to the barista who serves us coffee - helps to tone our vagus nerve, which emits into our blood oxytocin, our bodys wonderful love hormone. Crucially, these good hormones have anti-inflammatory qualities, helping to soothe your inflamed tissue.
At no point in the book does Rediger question the value of traditional medicine. I believe in vaccines, I believe in medicines, he says, firmly. Indeed, it is inadvisable and highly dangerous to rely on one of these alternative solutions instead of a doctor-backed treatment like chemotherapy, and virtually all of his examples are patients who had run out of road as far as conventional treatments were concerned. Claire Haser, for example, was told that her likelihood of living another five years was just five percent, even with a successful Whipple surgery. Rediger simply wants his readers to realise that medicine may be more complicated than we think.
Doctors are trained not to give false hope, Rediger says. I think thats good, but its not the whole story. When facing an awful diagnosis, people need grounded, realistic advice, but also something that says, What is your situation? What do you want to do? Whatever path that person takes, it needs to feel liberating.
Dr Jeff Redigers Cured: The Remarkable Science and Stories of SpontaneousHealing and Recoveries (Penguin Life) is available to buy for 9.99 from 19th March.
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