When I was diagnosed with autoimmune disease, my doctors told me there was no cure. I tried to adjust to my new reality, but I couldn’t help but wonder: does chronic illness have to be permanent?
We live in an age where science dominates our worldview. When science tells us that something is permanent, it is hard to refute. Once I became aware of the numerous reports of others who were healing from chronic illness, I was no longer willing to accept the permanency of my illness.
Science shows us how the physical body is incredibly dynamic. Old cells die and new ones are created. There are stem cells throughout the body that are capable of regenerating tissues and organs. In fact, scientists estimate that every year we generate a mass of cells equal to our own body weight., That means that the body you have today is not the same body you had a year ago. Atoms that make up your body in this moment flow in and out of you like your breath. The food you eat, the water you drink, and the air you breathe, literally become your body. Each week, you replace the lining of your intestines. Every month, you shed and replace your entire skin. In just three months, you make a whole tank of fresh blood cells. And these are just estimates for normal operating procedures.
Something even more incredible happens in response to injury. The rate of cell turnover and tissue regeneration increases dramatically. Through complex signals and messages, the body calls upon its master stem cells to rapidly repair and regenerate. Amazing feats of healing can take place. I have seen this with my own eyes: people who come to the emergency department terribly injured, and yet within a few months they are walking, talking, working, and playing again. They recover.
If we know that the body is continually changing, then why do we think of illness as something static? In chronic illness, something in the body may not be functioning optimally. There are a variety of reasons this may occur. For example, in asthma or allergies, a patient’s immune cells may overreact to an environmental stimulus and cause swelling of tissues with severe, even life-threatening, constriction of airways. In cancer, cells in the body have run amok and reproduce out of control creating a tumor. In cardiovascular disease, plaques narrow blood vessels so that, like a plugged up pipe, less and less blood can get through. In autoimmune disease, a patient’s own immune system begins to attack normal body tissues causing a variety of inflammatory conditions.
What if it is possible to alter the course of a chronic illness by supporting and augmenting our body’s own healing potential? In cancer, for example, what if we could boost the effectiveness of the Natural Killer immune cells (the immune cells known to fight tumors)? In autoimmune disease, perhaps life style changes would decrease inflammation in the body. In cardiovascular disease, what if shifting our behaviors could actually reverse the development of arterial plaques?
Reversal of chronic illness is not the norm. However, there are numerous reports in both the medical and lay literature about people who have, in fact, reversed “incurable” diseases. As I faced my own illness, I wanted to know who were these people who healed in spite of facing an “incurable” illness. What were they doing?
In my healing journey, I began to collect information about remissions, recoveries, placebo effects and, so called, “miraculous” cures. What I found astonished me. It turns out that there are hundreds of stories about recovery and remission from chronic illness. Entire books are written on the subject including, The Healer Within: The New Medicine of Mind and Body by Steven Locke and Douglas Colligan, Radical Remission: Surviving Cancer Against All Odds by Kelly Turner, Remarkable Recovery: What Extraordinary Healing Tells Us About Getting Well and Staying Well by Caryle Hirschberg and Marc Ian Barasch, and The Heart of Healing from the Institute of Noetic Sciences with William Poole. In the impressive collection called Spontaneous Remission: An Annotated Bibliography, Brendon O’Regan and Caryle Hirschberg document more than 3,500 accounts published in the medical literature of spontaneous remission from a wide variety of illnesses ranging from asthma to HIV, and cardiovascular disease to cancer. In the book Quantum Healing: Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine, Deepak Chopra discusses numerous individual cases of spontaneous remission. I was impressed with all of this data, yet a bit perplexed about why we rarely discuss remission and recovery from chronic illness in our modern medical encounters.
I became convinced that if one person can overcome and heal from a devastating illness, it means healing is, at the very least, possible. This knowledge gave me something I desperately needed as I struggled with illness: hope.
Healing means finding wholeness in our lives. In some cases healing may mean the restoration of health in the body. In some cases, the physical body will not be cured of illness. In all cases, hope can motivate us to do what we can to invite healing into our lives.
In the current medical model, doctors give statistics, and try to instill realistic expectations in patients by discussing facts, figures and percentages. But, in this way, practitioners of modern medicine often shut the door on hope for people who could benefit from contemplating what might be possible in the face of their illness. Information about illness should be given in a way that is honest and forthright, but without squashing the hope of someone who is diagnosed with an illness.We must stop shying away from hope in the name of realism. Instead, we can use hope as a powerful tool that opens us to the possibility of healing.
Many people argue that allowing hope to blossom in patients with chronic illness is reckless since it can lead to despair in those who fail to achieve a full remission. Despair can, indeed, occur when we remain attached to a health outcome that we cannot necessarily control. I experienced despair when I did not return to perfect health after trying countless “get well” protocols. For me, healing was gradual. I had to learn how to cultivate patience or I would miss the opportunity to be grateful for any improvements in my health. I found a tremendous healing power in the ability to accept the moment as it is.
We can live with hope, and avoid despair, if we learn to surrender our attachment to what we think our health outcome should be, and instead be present to the healing journey as it unfolds.
 Pellettieri, J 2007 Cell turnover and Adult Tissue Homeostasis: From Humans to Planarians, Annual Review of Genetics. 41: 83-105
 Reed JC. 1999. Dysregulation of apoptosis in cancer. J. Clin Oncol. 17:2941-53