Beyond Belief

We all deserve a balanced, objective approach from our cancer carers, whether or not they are part of the medical profession. Health professionals are always keen to show that they are “evidence-based” but when you scratch the surface you’ll find that every single person who works in cancer care has a belief system that influences the way they practice. From the oncologist who “doesn’t believe in” the benefits of nutrition, despite mountains of evidence, to the homeopath who “doesn’t believe in” the benefits of radiation therapy despite evidence that it prevents recurrence: we all have an angle. If you didn’t already have one, your own belief system will rapidly evolve from the moment you are diagnosed. Where it lands depends in large part on who you speak to and what you read – and it may profoundly affect your odds of survival. It pays to explore.

The Power of Placebo

Much has been written about the power of placebo effect (see Bruce Lipton & Jo Dispenza). It’s a well-documented, scientifically proven concept that proves beliefs impact outcomes. This is just as true for cancer as anything else, and the implications are huge. Your beliefs are an important factor in your survival. So it’s important to understand what they are and, if possible, build your treatment plan around them.

The placebo effect is normally associated with positive outcomes, but it has a dark twin – the nocebo effect – which describes the way negatives outcomes occur when you hold negative beliefs. My worry is that the habit of giving a prognosis to cancer patients along with a diagnosis can sometimes act as a nocebo, creating limiting beliefs that cap expectations and stop them believing in the possibility of better outcomes. We need to beware of that potential.

People sometimes think of a placebo as something that doesn’t work when, in fact, it’s the exact opposite: scientifically it’s nothing that does work! Placebo experiments prove that beliefs can be as powerful as drugs, and they can have an enhancing effect on treatment. In many ways it’s the most exciting idea in health care (unless you’re a pharmaceutical company). It challenges all our assumptions about medicine, and evidence, and the way our systems work. As soon as we see that something as nebulous as beliefs can influence outcomes then the whole concept of a prognosis crumbles, which also explains why they can be wildly inaccurate. So feel free to ditch the predictions of your medical team if it’s not helping you heal; you’d be in good company, many prominent oncologists and psychologists believe that attitude is far more important than diagnosis for predicting survival.

So, if we accept that treatments you believe in are going to be more effective than treatments you don’t, we get a whole new way to look at healing and cancer. We can see that it can really help to surround yourself with people who believe in you and who reinforce your belief in your ability to survive, and to screen out those who don’t.

The placebo effect helps to explain why one therapy can work for some people and not for others. It kicks in when you put your faith in your oncologist and you feel they’re on your side, whereas the nocebo effect rears its ugly head when your oncologist belittles your attempts to help yourself and tells you that nothing more can be done. A lot of people believe that their oncologist’s job is to cure cancer when really their role is to implement the current NHS ‘standard of care’ for your diagnosis as safely as possible. And, no matter how successful the treatment, you will arrive at the end of the process in a worse state of overall health than when you started, albeit with fewer cancer cells.

If you are lucky enough to get an oncologist who is open-minded to other avenues of healing then make the most of it. If you are allocated an old-school oncologist then brace yourself against the negativity, or consider changing. It’s absolutely vital to understand that your oncologist is not in charge or your recovery plan: you are. Charities like Yes to Life have integrated oncologists among their team of experts and it can be reassuring to hear fully trained medics acknowledging the importance of complementary medicine alongside conventional. We have been slow to do this in the UK while other countries have embraced integrated oncology for decades. We need ‘more than medicine’ to make a good recovery.

There is no better illustration of the contradictions between placebo and prognosis than the Radical Remission project. The project was set up by Dr Kelly Turner precisely to document the stories of people who have survived against all odds. These cancer patients had been given the familiar medical death sentence, “there’s nothing more we can do”, or they had decided that the next step was so drastic that they would rather face the consequences than face the treatment. Either way they decided to embark on a natural healing programme with the result that they are still alive many years later. The individual stories may not add up to scientific evidence but that fact that just one person has recovered from ‘incurable’ cancer using natural healing is enough for me. Maybe for you too?

In my view your beliefs strongly impact every aspect of your health and happiness which is why I have placed them at the top of the diagram above, this is the model I have developed to understand the different factors involved with breast cancer recovery.

Replacing Limiting Beliefs

Even as I type this I’m aware that it may sound as though I’ve lost the plot. It’s hard to tread the line between conventional thinking and magical thinking when it comes to health and healing. But if we don’t allow some space for a little magical thinking we may be missing out? There are still many aspects of the quantum universe that we don’t understand: not everything that matters can be measured. Conversely, not everything we measure actually matters, which is why cancer outcomes when measured against treatment are still random – there are other more important factors in the mix that we don’t yet understand.

Of course I know that cancer doesn’t always work out well. I’m not saying that the people who succumb to cancer just didn’t believe hard enough: I’m not J.M. Barrie, and this isn’t Peter Pan. I’m a survivor myself but I lost my beloved dad after a horrifying struggle with pancreatic cancer. I’m not saying we can always control the outcomes but I do believe that we need to do everything we can to ward off the negative beliefs that can come with the conventional view of cancer and to embrace the things we personally, individually, intuitively, instinctively feel will make a difference.

The funny thing about beliefs is that, although they can feel very certain, they can also change. Your beliefs don’t define you and although letting go can be difficult, especially if you are from a highly conditioned background, it can also be liberating. Dilt’s Logical Levels, a well known NLP model, is concerned with how we make changes in our lives. It shows us that there are many levels higher than beliefs that also exert powerful influences on your life and health outcomes. Many people find that cancer gives them permission to look at their logical levels to see where they may be holding you back from living your most vibrant life.

When we start to look at the way our spirituality, purpose and identity shapes our beliefs, another area of healing opens up. Most of us have limiting beliefs about ourselves that can get in the way of our ability to heal: they stop us from doing some of the things that are making us ill, or from starting to do some of the things that could make us well. You may have beliefs about money that mean you work yourself into the ground, or a sense of duty that means you are constantly overstressed, or a self-critical voice that means you are never off the hook. You may have beliefs about your body or your ability to heal, or a story of a relative with a similar diagnosis who didn’t make it. You may have a practised way of coping with life that is actually a denial of who you are and what you need. It’s time to tune in. It’s important to identify these ‘beliefs’ and deal with the ones that aren’t helpful. I encourage you to investigate and replace beliefs that are not working in your favour. Explore, exhume, extinguish, extend… it’s all up for grabs as you plan your future. Give yourself permission to try new things.

Making Choices that Fit with your Beliefs

Just as you can benefit from investigating your own beliefs, it’s equally important to understand the underlying beliefs and philosophies of the treatments you choose. Any therapy you choose will either reinforce your beliefs about health, and thus the placebo effect, or undermine them. Sometimes patients are not made fully aware of the potential (or lack of) for the treatments they undertake but it’s important that you know how they work and that you ‘buy in’ to their effectiveness to make the most of the placebo effect.

Roughly speaking, cancer therapies fall into four different areas: those that aim to kill as many cells as possible without killing you (pink); those that aim to stop some of your body’s natural functions in order to stop cancer (blue); those that aim to help the body to perform better than normal (green); and those that simply aim to provide the right environment for healing (orange). While most of these therapies can work together, nutrition underpins all of them – a well-nourished body helps all the other therapies to work better. It’s important to understand that some therapies can cancel each other out. For example there may be a place for boosting antioxidant status during cancer recovery but definitely not during cytotoxic medical treatment. Similarly, nutrigenetics is all about optimising genetic health, while cancer treatment aims to interfere with cellular reproduction at a genetic level, so the two approaches are mutually incompatible within the same time frame. Working with an expert can help you to avoid making mistakes in this important area.

Beliefs and uncertainty

One of the most difficult things about a cancer diagnosis is the uncertainty. At the time of writing (August, 2021) there is no known cure for cancer. Cancer treatment is increasingly successful for some cancers but a cure is not guaranteed. We ‘know’ broccoli is good for you – it can improve several breast cancer related pathways – but there is no evidence that broccoli can cure cancer. We know so much about cancer but don’t know precisely why or starts or stops. Which leaves patients in an anxiety-fuelled limbo and it means that cancer professionals need to maintain an air of humility. After all, we are all groping in the dark to some extent.

After almost quarter of a century grappling with the ideas above (which we all understand but struggle to articulate) I’ve developed my own belief system about maintaining my own health and helping clients regain theirs. In that time my practice has changed from scrabbling to find any evidence at all for cancer and nutrition to struggling to keep up with it all. I believe, in fact I know, that it is impossible for any one person to know everything about cancer and I have come to the conclusion that we need a range of experts on our team rather than a single guru. We can benefit from the combined knowledge, experience, energy and beliefs of a supportive group of practitioners who are truly committed to their field.

When I decided to specialise in nutrition for breast cancer, over a decade ago, I thought I was taking a risk by becoming so niche. Ten years on I realise that I need to go even deeper and specialise in nutrigenetic aspects for breast cancer in order to work at the depth that my clients need. All of my previous knowledge and experience is still part of my practice, and I still work within the context of the healing matrix above, but I have found that focussing on the impact of genes adds a vital layer of personalisation and understanding to the situation. Because it is tailored to your genes, nutrigenetics is the least intrusive and most personalised way to support your body to mobilise a healing response against cancer. As such it complements all of the different belief systems whether you are going for everything modern medicine can throw at you, or aiming for a radical remission. Nutrigenetics helped me to recover from an ‘incurable’ pre-cancerous tongue condition and has helped my clients to return to health time and again. I don’t see nutrigenetics as a cure-all, it is just one important part of a comprehensive, complementary care plan but, without it, I believe we are missing a critical piece of the jigsaw that can make all the difference.

If that fits with your beliefs, please feel free to book an appointment.